Thomas Dart, Partner, Family Law.

There are, sadly, similarities between the NHL lockout and warring spouses. Here are a few:

  1. Both argue over their just share of total “family” income,
  2. Both want to have final say and therefore power over the other;
  3. Both detest the other side – even mediation won’t assist them in overcoming their animosity toward each other;
  4. Both are trying to win over ‘public opinion’ – for divorcing spouses this often means getting their family and friends on ‘their side’;
  5. Both are willing to risk permanently harming their own future by going to court to resolve their dispute;
  6. Both are ignoring their  fans/children and the harm they are doing to their “parental” relationship; and
  7. The fans/children have no say in the conflict. 

In his introduction to “The Handbook of Conflict Resolution, 2nd ed.[1]  one of the co-editors, Martin Deutsch, describes such a conflict  as follows:

“[A professional couple was]  involved in bitter conflicts over issues they considered nonnegotiable. The destructiveness of their way of dealing with their conflicts was reflected in their tendency to escalate disputes about almost any specific issue (for example, a household chore, the child’s bedtime) into a power struggle in which each spouse felt that his or her self-esteem or core identity was at stake. The destructive process resulted in (as well as from) justified mutual suspicion; correctly perceived mutual hostility; a win lose orientation to their conflicts; a tendency to act so as to lead the other to respond in a way that would confirm one’s worst suspicion; inability to understand and empathize with the other’s needs and vulnerabilities; and reluctance – based on stubborn pride, nursed grudges, and fear of humiliation – to initiate or respond to a positive, generous action so as to break out of the escalating vicious cycle in which they were trapped.”

As Deutsch points out, only when each was able to listen to and fully understand the other’s feelings and how their respective life experiences had led them to those views were they really able to begin productive discussion. Fully understanding the other’s position made each person feel less hurt and humiliated and both became readier to seek solutions that would recognize mutual interests. They had to be ready to “stand in the other person’s shoes”.  Only then were they able to accept that all issues were ‘negotiable’.

In the competitive “macho” world of hockey, it is very difficult (impossible?) to accept that all issues are negotiable. If the two sides were able to work collaboratively, they most likely could increase the available revenue stream so that they could both win. There is no doubt that they have the talent to do so. So far, they appear to be trapped in that vicious cycle described by Mr. Deutsch.

Fortunately, warring couples do not have to keep warring. If they are willing not only to seek help but actively participate in resolving their issues, constructive resolution is possible, without court.  As the NHL has proven, even skilled mediators can’t assist if one side or the other is unwilling to accept that all issues are negotiable. If that stance is rigid, only the court can make the decision. But, as our experience in family law proves, the conflict won’t end with the court  decision.  Court decisions only provide a temporary resolution. As relationships by their very nature must continue, conflict will undoubtedly arise again.  Once it does, it will blaze into another court battle.  When you ‘beat somebody down’, nobody “wins”.

On the good side, it’s Christmas time which, for hockey fans, means the World Junior Championships – where we get to watch very skilled young, idealistic players who play for the love of the game and country.  One thing that the current NHL conflict is teaching us is that we can live without it. We will always have youngsters playing minor hockey at all levels.  If you have never seen a six year old play house league hockey, you don’t know what you have missed!  The joy that spurts out from them when their game is over – win or lose – is right from the heart!   We know that hockey will always be part of Canada and I don’t really care if it carries the NHL brand anymore.  In fact, it’s better  if it doesn’t  !!

So thanks NHL and NHLPA – you have made us focus on the right stuff – the loving spirit of Christmas and Canadian hockey , in that order !!

Happy Holidays to all !!!


[1] John Wiley & Sons Inc. 2006, Introduction, pp. 1-2.