SUN Hockey Pool

It's deadly silent

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman takes questions from the media as Edmonton Oilers ownership group...

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman takes questions from the media as Edmonton Oilers ownership group president Cal Nichols sits next to him at a news conference Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2004. (Edmonton Sun/Walter Tychnowicz)

TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:44 AM ET

It's called preaching to the converted.

There is no place in Gary Bettman's work-stoppage world more owner-friendly than his 38-owner NHL franchise in Edmonton.

So when Bettman stood up to speak to the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce breakfast yesterday, he knew he was going to be well-received. He ended up maybe even being a little bit re-energized by the standing ovation and reception which barely stopped short of "Here We Go, Gary, Here We Go!"

Bettman knew he'd bend the applause metre when he promised "to fix this and make it right, particularly for a place like Edmonton so you won't have to worry about the future or being competitive with the other teams in the league."

Amen. Let us sing hymn No. 99.

NOT TOTALLY FRIENDLY FIRE

It wasn't totally friendly fire, however, which the NHL commissioner faced when he met the media for a Q & A session two-and-a-half hours after the breakfast love-in.

"No breaking news, no announcements to make," Bettman began.

The NHL boss did say the much bandied-about cost certainty number of $31 million U.S. per team "is probably closer to $35 million." And he did throw out a juicy quote about agent decertification by the NHLPA being different than owner comment castigation by the league as being two different things: "We just fine money, we don't have capital punishment."

But, no news. No announcements.

Nobody expected otherwise. It was more an exercise to attempt read resolve and determine the drop dead date for The Lost Season, which I personally think is the conventional one about Jan. 10 and then the one about a month-and-a-half later when a division only, home-and-home (14-team, 28-games) tournament season could still be staged.

I've avoided writing lockout columns since Sept. 15 when I wrote about the world's biggest game of chicken, because (a) nobody wants to read about the same stuff over and over again and (b) because it's been clear since the beginning that nothing was going to happen, except using the media for spin doctoring, until sometime in early January.

"The union is only likely to bargain when it thinks it's the 11th hour," said Bettman yesterday, adding that the drop-dead date "is when they think a deadline is. You can't make things happen faster than they're going to happen."

It's hard to accuse him of spin doctoring on that. And it's hard to blame the NHLPA for taking it to the make-or-break date. That's why I can't understand anybody getting their shorts in a knot at this point. We've all been able to see this coming for years and knew how it would play when it came.

The last time they did this dance, the owners capitulated and signed a decidedly dumb deal back in '94, which was before they went from dumb to dumber and extended it, greedily going for all that expansion money a few years later.

The entire history of these deals in sport is of ownership capitulation. It's one thing to lose a bunch of games at this time of year. It's another to lose the entire season and the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Right now, what we're dealing with here is players waiting out the owners to get down to drop dead day. And while Bettman offers all sorts of criticism for that, he never admits that it's the owners who created this mess.

DONE NOTHING WRONG

The players haven't, to this point, done a single thing wrong except take full advantage of the mess the owners made and get ridiculously rich while the owners kept playing with their broken toy.

What the owners are doing here is trying to legislate against their own stupidity -- and to some extent have already done so by creating a situation where eight votes can keep the lockout going.

It would be refreshing if, just once, I could hear Bettman admit all that.

He didn't yesterday, although one media man managed to get him, after about 100 mentions of "work stoppage," to say "lockout -- it is a lockout."

That said, Bettman continued to do a good job, sitting beside Oilers' ownership group president Cal Nichols, to make you believe that this time ownership isn't going to capitulate.

"Time will tell," he said.

"The proof will be in the pudding.

"I have no doubt about the resolve. I've never seen a group more unified. We're on a one-way street and it's going the wrong way right now."

Bettman didn't have to come to Edmonton to sell the fans on being patient while he parks the league in the middle of that street. He could set up headquarters here.


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