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Three hockey players in maple leafs jerseys carrying hockey sticks.
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Mitch Marner celebrates his goal against the Florida Panthers with teammates Auston Matthews and John Tavares during first period NHL hockey action in Sunrise, Fla. on April 16, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

The Toronto Maple Leafs should not play hardball with its Core Four players

According to Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment CEO, Keith Pelley, when it comes to the Toronto Maple Leafs, “good is simply not good enough.” So, it should come as no surprise, that following the Leafs’ Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins — that was, their seventh first-round exit in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the last eight seasons — significant changes would be necessary. Good — but simply not good enough — coach Sheldon Keefe was first to go.

Reportedly, one or more of the Maple Leafs’ Core Four — Captain John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and William Nylander (plus Morgan Rielly) — may be next to go. However, there are issues — some practical and some philosophical — with that.

Each of the Core Four have previously negotiated no-movement clauses. So, unless Tavares or Marner choose to waive (or are coerced to waive) their no-trade agreements, there’s no trade.

As a result, pundits have suggested the Maple Leafs could (and perhaps even should) “make life rather miserable for him [Mitch Marner] in his last season in Toronto” to nudge one or more of the Core Four to consider waiving their no-movement clauses. However, such hardball negotiation tactics are inadvisable.

Three men in suit jackets sit at a long table in front of screens displaying the logos of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ford Motors
Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment president Keith Pelley (left), Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan (centre) and Maple Leafs general manager Brad Treliving speak to the media during a press conference in Toronto on May 10, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

3D negotiation

Hardball, or hard bargaining, tactics are inadvisable for several reasons. First, according to Harvard professors David Lax and James Sebenius, such coercive strategies and tactics are doomed to fail because they are (at best) short-term, short-sighted and fail to account for the interests and potential value that can only be created by looking beyond the immediate deal or issue.

According to Lax and Sebenius, more effective three dimensional negotiators scan the environment “in order to construct the most promising sequence of deals that lead to a self-sustaining company.” 3D negotiators consider the impacts from their actions and how parties beyond the immediate issue can influence the deal and future deals as well.

When it comes to the Core Four, the notion that the Maple Leafs should use coercive hardball tactics to nudge Tavares or Marner to waive their no-movement clauses fails to meet Lax and Sebenius’ 3D standard. It does not consider, for instance, how such tactics might influence future high-profile free agents’ decisions to choose to join or stay with the Maple Leafs.

An Infinite Game

At Brock University’s Department of Sport Management, perhaps the most important lesson learned through our negotiation workshops concerns the Infinite Game concept. In short, infinite games are continuous (life, business, relationships, etc.) and as such, should be played with an elevated ethical code.

Whereas in finite games, you might consider lying or cheating if doing so increases your odds of winning, an infinite game demands more — because to stay in the game you have to consider how decisions will effect your reputation and whether people trust you.

A man in a dark suit jacket sits in front of a microphone
Toronto Maple Leafs former head coach Sheldon Keefe was fired after the team’s seventh first-round exit in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the last eight seasons. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Yet, negotiations (even negotiation simulations) provide a platform, or moments, that can test students’ willingness to trade short-term gains for long-term trust. For example, student-negotiators can be tempted to suggest their best alternative to a proposed deal (whatever that deal happens to be) is better than it is.

So as not to make these same mistakes in your next salary negotiation (e.g., by suggesting to your boss that you have several offers from competing companies when you don’t), do the necessary work to actually obtain your best alternatives.

The lesson — that negotiation in the sport management arena is an infinite game — can be reinforced by conducting multiple simulations in which negotiating partners alternate roles with each side having an obvious advantage over the other.

In those situations, advantaged student-negotiators who (wrongly) assumed they were playing a finite game in the first simulation are often surprised to learn how taking advantage of their partner comes back to haunt them in the second round.

The Core Four conundrum

Maple Leafs leadership has important decisions to make. First, is whether to adopt 3D negotiation principles, including seeing beyond the current negotiation table to ensure decisions made now don’t negatively impact future deals.

Second, is whether to treat the Core Four conundrum as a finite or an infinite game. Hardball tactics that make life miserable for the Core Four may be deemed an acceptable (though unethical) part of the game.

However, viewed as an infinite game, the situation demands the Maple Leafs leadership team live up to their word (and the word of previous leaders) on negotiated agreements with no-movement clauses. Anything less is simply not good enough.

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