SUN Hockey Pool

Bettman legacy on line

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:36 AM ET

Gary Bettman has drawn his line in the sand.

Whether he is willing to scratch it out now -- or even has the authority to do so -- will determine whether there will be a National Hockey League season.

This is his time to negotiate -- but so far he has maintained a policy doomed for legal impasse and a winter without hockey.

It has been salary cap or nothing. It has been cost certainty or nothing. It has been his way or no way.

And now, how does he save his league and his flailing reputation without being the first to blink?

How does he abandon the absolute position he has been spouting for years in yet another negotiation with the NHL Players' Association?

If your name is Gary Bettman, this is your troubled legacy: Your league is bloated and weak. The NHL has grown to too many teams with too few fans with expenses too high and revenues too low and a U.S. television deal that is, at its best, laughable.

Never mind that you have become the official punching bag for every locked-out player with any kind of snipe or gripe. What you need now, for your league and yes, for whatever legacy may be left, is to avoid being a punch line.

And there is no easy way to proceed from here.

That is the conundrum of the negotiations between the NHL and NHLPA that begin today and end who knows when? Bettman has been a rock so far. Unmoving. Unshaken.

FRACTURED GROUP

A decade ago, with his ownership group completely fractured, without similar resolve but a somewhat similar negotiation, Bettman cut a lockout deal with the NHLPA that has led to the mess of today. He can't afford to make that kind of deal again -- even though he will be handsomely compensated either way.

The league can't afford another bad deal. The players, for all their bluster, can't afford it, either.

At least this time, Bettman hasn't had to juggle owners. He hasn't had to keep the doves from the hawks. He hasn't had to sell them on anything. He prepared the owners for this work stoppage. They were aware of the goal -- aware of the perils involved with attaining it.

He has promised the owners cost certainty -- a promise he wasn't able to deliver in the past collective bargaining agreement. When Bettman shook hands with NHLPA boss Bob Goodenow on that arrangement, the one thing he forgot to do was count his fingers.

Since then, Goodenow and the players have dined out at the expense of ownership. Salaries have risen to proportions similar to other major league sports without revenues that are in any way comparable.

Something had to break to make a deal and last time it was Bettman. Badly beaten by Goodenow, who was urged by his players to get a deal done. Now the players are in a similar mood: They want a deal done and now.

The question is: Is there a deal to be made? The question is: Will Bettman blink?

All proposals in recent months have come from the players' association. Bettman and the owners have stood still and firm.

Now there is a line drawn in the sand and it's time to talk. Or time to cancel the season.

It's Gary Bettman's game now. In the sand or mired in quicksand.


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