SUN Hockey Pool

Bob 'n' Gary closer to door

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:56 AM ET

The NHL rebounded nicely in between the announcement of lights out on Wednesday and the aborted revival of the season yesterday in New York. There will be no season, although I'm not sure you can say that with absolute certainty until July when you look out the front door of your cottage up north and see NHL players on their Sea-Doos.

I know, many of you want to see the game back, no matter what. Many more keep up with the story because you are like the widow who opens the lid on her husband's casket just before it's lowered into the ground.

"Look," coos a friend, "she wants to see him one more time." "Nah," says the widow's sister. "She just wants to make sure the lousy S.O.B. is still there."

Look at the bright side. A returned campaign brought with it well-intentioned but poorly timed rule changes and a regular season that would last as long as a snowflake on a hot windshield. It would have been a stupid, ungainly beast. Besides, the season doesn't seem such a profound loss when measured against three very bad days for the authors of this mess: NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA head Bob Goodenow.

When Bettman pulled the plug Wednesday, he seemed the sure winner of the labour confrontation. His argument for dropping linkage, that the ubiquitous cost certainty still could be gained with a salary cap, was plausible enough.

More importantly, by forcing Goodenow to accept a salary cap, he had inflicted cataclysmic damage on his rival and cleaved him from his membership.

Players had been telling the media for months, years even, that there would be no salary cap. When they woke up Tuesday to find the central element of their fight negotiated away, the players, honest, honourable men, were embarrassed. Many felt sold out.

Of course, the union's rally against a cap as a motherhood issue always had been folly. You can't link an industry's right to assess its costs with labour's right to inflate its salary past every reckoning. The two aren't just mutually incompatible. One is a function of doing business, the other is a product of life in fantasyland.

Goodenow had set himself off as an ideological warrior and, thanks to a spectacular track record of salary inflation, the players were ready to follow him to hell and back. But when he caved, he committed the cardinal sin of the hockey player. He didn't watch his teammates' back. The whole confrontation, a battle against consortiums with unlimited resources against athletes with homes, mortgages and snapshot careers, had been fought over a lie.

That said, a Grade 3 student could see that Bettman's view of a magnetic cap -- that each dollar he surrendered would inevitably be multiplied by 30 teams -- was disingenuous. A cap of $45 million US or so was the perfect solution because it still allowed smaller teams to operate comfortably way below the cap.

Bettman lost because he wouldn't seal the deal. The timing of the offer so deep into the stalemate, the threat to pull the offer off the table if it wasn't unconditionally accepted, all those were blows needlessly inflicted on an already badly listing opponent.

Had he been able to make the deal, Bettman could have glossed over disastrous expansion decisions and the twice-extended CBA that resulted in billions of dollars in losses for his employers. Without it, where is his platform to argue for continued employment?

Both men lost enormous credibility late in the week when figures from the rank and file, Mike Gartner from the players' side, Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky from the owners, interceded on behalf of their constituents.

FISSURES

Reopening talks after he had given his stated word that the season was in fact dead was Bettman's version of the salary cap cave. It highlighted fissures in the ownership between big operators and small that until now had been kept out of the public eye. It highlighted his loosening grip on the chain of events. It made him look like a liar.

And so, the season that never was ... still is dead. In that way, nothing has changed since Tuesday, maybe since this whole thing began in September

But progress has been made on one important front. Bob Goodenow and Gary Bettman, the architects of this disaster, seem a whole lot closer to the door than they did at midweek. That's got to be worth something.


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