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Michael Wilbon

Owners Win, Hockey Loses

By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, February 17, 2005; Page D01

There was one moment of stupefying arrogance during Gary Bettman's news conference yesterday when the NHL commissioner, moments after announcing the cancellation of the season, said with the straightest of faces, "I don't have any concerns that the fans will come back."

During this man's tenure, four NHL franchises have declared bankruptcy and two teams have left the game's home, Canada, to move to the United States.

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This is a man who oversees a league that walked to the brink of economic ruin by putting franchises in places that value palm trees, not ice. Bettman is a man who will be perfectly ready to trot out replacement players to start the 2005-2006 season in October.

Ray Ferraro, the former NHL player who works for ESPN as a hockey analyst, said during an interview from Vancouver on ESPN's "Pardon The Interruption" yesterday, "If I had a business and he was the face out front, I'd poke my eyes out."

And having said that, because everything in sports comes down to winners and losers, I should probably point out Bettman has won the great hockey labor debate of 2005. He won because he answers to the owners and the owners made clear when this lockout began that they would lose less money canceling the season than they would playing it. Bettman won because the players' union, or at least the leaders of the players' union, caved in the 11th hour like you wouldn't believe.

After saying for two years the players would not agree to any kind of salary cap system, even though salaries in the NFL and NBA have increased under such restrictors, union chief Bob Goodenow made an offer yesterday that included a salary cap. The number the players asked for went from $52 million to $49 million, but it was still a cap, when as recently as Monday they said any form of salary cap was a deal killer.

Imagine if you're one of approximately 350 NHL players currently competing in Europe and you hear out of nowhere and probably without input that your union just caved on the issue that has been at the heart of the dispute. Wouldn't the negotiating process have had a better chance to produce an agreement if the union had accepted a salary cap even four months ago and negotiated the biggest slice of pie possible? Matthew Barnaby, a Blackhawks forward, told the Associated Press, "We probably could've gotten this thing done in the summertime. I'm just a little disappointed that it went this far to play poker and to have someone call your bluff."

Ferraro said he believes the union is "fractured" over caving on the issue of adopting a salary cap so late in the game and with so little input from its players. At the very least the union has been severely weakened. If the players don't soon agree to a cap number very close to the $42.5 million per team the owners have offered, the NHL will simply roll in the replacement players next fall and we all saw how that worked out for the NFL players' union in 1987, didn't we? Bettman is already promising the next offer will be less than the one on the table yesterday morning.

There's no question, even with the season cancelled, the league and its owners won this particular battle. Hey, just because Bettman is unbearably arrogant doesn't mean he isn't smart. The NHL needed Bettman to protect the owners from themselves and he did it. They loaded up on all those expansion franchise fees in the 1990s, doled out huge player salaries that never should have been awarded, found themselves in huge trouble, and wanted to lay all the blame on the players. The NHL came to need, as Bettman said, "a completely different economic model," which is to say a salary cap that would not allow an owner to pay a journeyman forward $5 million or $6 million a season.

The NHL isn't the NBA. NHL teams don't produce enough revenue to pay players $50 million a season. If it costs less money to close your doors than to open your doors, why would you open them? Not only is the NHL's TV contract in the United States not lucrative, the contract doesn't pay the NHL anything. NHL ratings on cable TV are often lower than bowling. Sportswriters talking trash on TV blow away actual NHL games in the ratings, so it's not like the NHL is in such hot demand that players are being cheated. The NHL can't afford, without a national TV contract of consequence, to pay out as much in salaries on average as NBA teams ($52 million per team).

The $42.5 million the NHL is offering is a lot better than no money this year, or going to Europe to take a whole lot less. If I ran the NHL, I'd have held out for a salary cap, too. But I wouldn't have gone on TV, the way Bettman did, and said of the union, "We never had a willing participant to correct what everybody acknowledged was [economically] wrong with this game." Over and over Bettman slammed the union, saying the union leadership and members didn't understand the economics of the league, calling them at one point, "the party on the other side that doesn't know your economics . . . "

If I was a player rep in the NHL, I'd wait until a new agreement was bargained, then I'd start about the mission of firing Goodenow as head of the union, then direct my heat at Bettman, who also needs to go.

The commissioner's antagonism had to have hurt the process, and his statement that he has no concerns about the fans coming back is reflective of how out of touch he has been, and of how unable the NHL has been during his tenure to grow the sport, to be creative enough and bold enough to attract new fans by enhancing the product, even if that means changing the game.

In a reflective moment when Bettman appeared almost to take some responsibility for being essentially the CEO for a league that won't have a season, that won't have its championship series for the first time since just after World War I, he said, "Nobody knows what the damage to the sport will be."

Hard-core hockey fans aren't going anywhere but back to the rink.

But the others might look at this mess, at this whole ship of fools and think: If the NHL doesn't care enough to stage its season, why should the rest of us give a damn?

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