Renowned mediator wants crack at talks

Judge Arthur Boylan may have led mediation between the National Football League and NFL Players Association during last year’s lockout, but the Minnesota-based chief federal magistrate finds the current NHL work stoppage hitting closer to home.

A Chicago Blackhawks fan from youth who has since converted to a supporter of his hometown Minnesota Wild -- a season-ticket holder since the team’s inception -- Boylan just received his refund for this weekend’s game against the Detroit Red Wings, among the several hundred matches canceled in the wake of the NHL lockout. He is going to watch the Wild’s farm team, the Houston Aeros, take on the Rockford IceHogs at the Xcel Energy Center on Sunday instead.

Before the lockout began, Boylan didn’t know how much time he devoted to watching the sport. Now, he’s wondering why he even has cable.

"I’d volunteer to do it for free," Boylan said in a telephone interview with ESPNNewYork.com. "I’d love to get this thing done."

Whether mediation is a route the NHL and NHLPA pursue -- both sides have admitted being open to the possibility at points throughout the process -- remains to be seen.

After four straight days of negotiations last week, the final session ended with heated exchanges across the table. Two days later, the sides met for less than an hour, seemingly more at odds than before.

The two sides have been in limited contact since the dispiriting bargaining session Sunday, and no future meeting has been scheduled.

The outlook is bleak, but Boylan said there is too much at stake to see another season lost, like in 2004-05.

"They know the future of the game is in their hands," he said. "They'd really be blowing this thing if it doesn’t get resolved, it being the second lockout in recent memory. That would be a real disaster for everybody."

Boylan said he feels mediation is always a wise choice when two sides hit this sort of impasse -- the earlier, the better. The judge was tasked with bringing together the NFL and NFLPA after a failed round of mediation before the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service lockout in April 2011.

The first thing he did?

Huddled NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith together for lunch, talking about everything but football. From his chambers, he slipped the two men out of a side door, evaded the press and found a quiet place for the three of them to grab a bite to eat.

Goodell and Smith had a D.C. connection, Boylan found, a small tie but not too trivial to work with.

"Part of the whole thing about mediation is finding common ground, even if it’s something unrelated. You can find camaraderie in anything," Boylan said. "And boy, there sure are a lot of traditions in hockey and a love for the sport. One thing leads to another and that commonality, that sure goes a long way."

A large part of Boylan’s job was not just to find traction in negotiations but also to determine which lawyers worked well together and which owners and which players were helpful to the process.

And always, he encouraged them to keep talking.

Oftentimes, the two sides would stay at the same hotel, he said, and even when they met with fierce resistance, he insisted the two sides “break bread” after sessions. Whether it was joining up for dinner or grabbing a few cocktails, Boylan wanted the two sides to maintain communication.

The NFL and NFLPA eventually came to an agreement on a 10-year collective bargaining agreement in July, managing to avoid further damage to the game by settling before the regular season began.

"This sounds corny, but it’s the honest-to-God truth. You saw how passionate both sides were about the game, how much love they had for the game, and they knew how much was riding on whether they resolved the case, for the future of the game," he said. "These guys had reverence for the game, and they were stewards for that game. They weren’t going to blow it. I’m not saying money wasn't important, but there really was a mutual respect there."

The respect factor, or even the lone semblance of trust, might be the biggest impediment to seeing hockey any time soon. Despite the numerous reports of mounting tension, contentious battles and lack of common ground between the NHL and NHLPA, Boylan remains optimistic.

"I’m pretty confident they’re going to get this thing done," he said. "At least there’s some hint of optimism on the union’s side. I think getting players that love the game and owners that love the game in there together is the perfect combination."

Boylan hopes that, however they choose to resolve their differences, some agreement is in place soon.

"I’d love to take a crack at it, because it’s truly the game I love," he said. "And from a selfish standpoint, you’d really like to see them back on the ice."