SUN Hockey Pool

NHL fight 'can be resolved'

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 9:47 AM ET

It was a question you wish you could have hauled back fast, but it was too late:

"Can the NHL owners- players dispute be resolved?" internationally recognized dispute resolution expert Richard McLaren was asked.

It was a bit like asking one of those oil firefighters whether a burning well can be capped. Of course it can. It's just a matter of process.

Relations between the locked-out players and their owners are cold, not hot. There's no movement because there is no dialogue.

And there's no dialogue because the front men for the rival parties, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHLPA, have variously stated, with staggering hubris, that only they understand the issues while a growing body of fans and players and possibly even owners are wondering why an impartial mediator has not been considered.

McLaren, who has received what he calls a very unofficial approach from players, says a warmer relationship is entirely possible. He was asked how he regards the impasse and, on a what-if basis, how he'd handle it.

"As a dispute resolution person, I'm sure it can be resolved," the UWO law professor said yesterday.

"There are two steps. One, you'd have to define a process they can engage in by which they can back off entrenched positions. And two, once into that process, they can start engaging in the issues."

Ah, the issues. There's one that stands out as a high and unbreachable wall. The owners want a salary cap and the players will never agree.

"You'd want to deal with issues where there's not as much contention as the primary issues, build some agreements and go forward from there," McLaren said.

He's no stranger to mediation and arbitration. He has been a member of the Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration for Sport for Olympic Games since 1996, along with Commonwealth Games and a number of cases involving national and international sports governing bodies.

He chairs a committee weighing the appeal of Australian cyclist Mark French, who received two-year suspension from competition and a lifetime ban from Olympic competition by the Australian Olympic Committee.

And he's been to war -- the Persian Gulf War.

"I was involved in a case that related to products specially designed for use in the Gulf war. I can't say much more than it was about the design and use of highly specialized equipment for the desert. There was a lot of emotion, a lot of controversy and a lot of confidential parts to it.

"We had to unpack the emotion, deal with the confidentiality and bring the multiple parties together and work out a solution, which we did over a couple of days."

McLaren, who has done NHL work before in salary arbitration, says compromise looms large in agreements. Sometimes the respective parties have to be taught what the word means.

"In the current hockey situation, there are multiple stakeholders, which makes it a bit more complicated. There's a large group of owners who come together through one person and you have a large group of players who come together through one person.

"It's a case of 'what's your next-best alternative?' If you continue in the direction you're going, which is to have no hockey and be locked out and nobody's playing or making money, that's not a long-term alternative. So, the next-best alternative is to come to an agreement on a collective bargaining agreement."

All very logical and straightforward -- if the respective leaders can shelve their egos.

The widely published law prof probably would employ one word from the title of his major work, Innovative Dispute Resolution, if he were to retained.

Innovative is the word.


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