SUN Hockey Pool

Is NHL brass cracking?

Al Strachan says Gary Bettman has failed to deliver on his promises to make the NHL a better...

Al Strachan says Gary Bettman has failed to deliver on his promises to make the NHL a better product. (Toronto Sun File/Ernest Doroszuk)

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:09 AM ET

After half a season of lost revenue, it would appear that cracks are starting to appear in the National Hockey League's upper echelon.

Thanks to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's fanatical devotion to secrecy, the governors appear to be sticking together. Even these guys don't want to cough up $1 million US for speaking out of turn, and if there are any leaks lower than the governor level, Bettman has threatened to end the hockey career of the culprit.

So as a result, we're reduced to speculation and whispers.

But with that caveat in place, it must be said that there do indeed appear to be cracks in the NHL's solidarity. According to the reports, that's why Bettman cancelled the board meeting that was to have been held this Friday.

He knows he had nothing new to offer. He knows that there are malcontents on the board, and he knows that many of the governors feel that they had won the day when the union came through with a highly workable offer on Dec. 14.

So because there would have been indications at the meeting that the wheels are coming off, and because most sports editors were sending their top hockey columnists who would have ferreted out the malaise, Bettman reportedly decided to cancel the meeting.

Bettman is in a quandary. He is by nature a manipulator and in order to get what he wanted over the years, he did some manipulating. He made some deals.

It was his goal to be the man who brought hockey from the wilderness to the forefront of the U.S. sporting scene. He had seen his high-level colleagues at the National Basketball Association, David Stern and Russ Granik, do just that for their game and he felt he could do the same for hockey.

To be successful, he needed a larger, more widespread NHL with greater penetration into the major American markets. But at the same time, he inherited a league that not only had some shaky franchises but had cities that, as far as the American perception is concerned, would never, ever, ever be major-league: Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Quebec and Ottawa being five of them.

Two of those franchises moved to the U.S. and, under Bettman's tenure, the other three all were in danger of folding on at least one occasion.

Bettman also had to extinguish financial fires in a number of other cities -- Montreal, Buffalo, Miami, Tampa, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Hartford, to name a few.

It's not easy to sell high-priced expansion franchises when so many of your established franchises keep running into financial difficulties.

So whenever Bettman needed to persuade a potential new owner that hockey was the place to be, he made a promise. He would guarantee cost certainty down the road -- a hard cap on salaries that would reward these owners for their investment, no matter how bad the on-ice product might be.

Now, it's time to deliver on all those promises.

But there's a problem. A lot of franchises have done very well under the old system. Their GMs may not be everybody's favourite people -- Lou Lamoriello of New Jersey, Pierre Lacroix of Colorado and Bob Clarke of Philadelphia would be three of them -- but the fact remains that if you ran your business well, you could not only survive, you could make significant profits.

It stands to reason that if these people could make money under the old system, they could be rolling in cash under a new deal with the players earning 24% less and all the inflationary pressure points removed.

It takes no great leap of logic, therefore, to believe that there must be some cracks in the league's resolve. Why wouldn't there be? Impartial sources everywhere say that the players' offer was not only a very good one, it was an excellent starting point for negotiations that never came.

But to get negotiations rolling, Bettman would have to be over-ruled. No wonder he cancelled the meeting.


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