Bettman stands ground

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 3:35 PM ET

Gary Bettman proved as elusive a target as Jean Chretien for Peter Mansbridge and a town hall crowd on The National last night during a segment devoted to hockey's lockout. The NHL commissioner was confronted by everyone from a hockey-deprived 11-year-old boy to a man who wanted Bettman to get out of the collective bargaining talks to one who urged him to quit his post altogether.

Bettman did his best Martin Brodeur imitation in deflecting the criticism from inquisitors at the CBC's Front St. studios and via live hook-ups across North America. He spun his way out of various attempts to portray the owners and the players' association as too stubborn in their entrenched positions.

Union leader Bob Goodenow will be questioned in the same forum this evening.

On one of the few occasions Bettman was on the run, a sports collectibles store owner in Winnipeg said the league's current problems were rooted in its expansion to non-traditional hockey markets in the U.S. when it could have saved a the Jets in a hockey hotbed. The Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and the bankrupt Ottawa Senators were later propped up with league help.

But an untimely feature on hockey in Detroit and other U.S. markets gave Bettman time and opportunity for an escape. He pointed out rather triumphantly that the nine post-1990 expansion teams had drawn 40 million fans and could become success stories with a new CBA.

"Think back to Buffalo, Ottawa and Pittsburgh and a number of near misses no one knows about," Bettman said. "We owe it to the game, and especially the six franchises in Canada, to get this (CBA) right."

Mansbridge might have thought Bettman would squirm when the host pointed out owners had made their own bed with wild spending sprees that drove contracts through the roof in the past seven years. But Bettman was well prepared, using the new company line that clubs were forced to use a system "that puts them between a rock and a hard place.

"If they say no, the player either sits out or goes somewhere else and the fans want to know why is it our team can't be competitive and keep our young stars. It's easy to say 'the team shouldn't pay the money' but the media and the fans are screaming 'keep that player.' "

Bettman had little hope for a quick resolution, saying he has not spoken to Goodenow since a week ago Thursday at the last fruitless CBA bargaining session.

Mansbridge asked if Bettman were putting the onus on Goodenow to make the first move to get talks rolling, but Bettman indicated the CBA mess was in a cooling off period at present.

"The CBA is more of an art form, not an exact science," Bettman said, a statement that will have anxious fans groaning at the possibility of a year's shutdown. "You have to go with the ebb and flow."

"But don't get caught up in the (union) rhetoric. Under their proposals, half our teams would continue to lose money. It's not about blame. We don't begrudge the players the money they've made. But we can't continue this way."


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