NHL board will laud Gary

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:43 AM ET

For those of you who are wondering what will happen at today's National Hockey League's board of governors meeting in New York, here's the answer.

It will be a very productive session, with every owner expressing undying support for commissioner Gary Bettman and the masterful way in which he killed the patient to make sure the operation was successful.

At least, that's what they'll say. More or less.

As to what will really happen behind closed doors, that's another matter. Certainly, a number of owners are unhappy with the way Bettman conducted negotiations with the NHL Players' Association. They feel he cost them the significant profits they could have made had he accepted the players' Dec. 9 offer with its 24% rollback and its elimination of a number of inflationary pressure points.

But there won't be any outward show of dissatisfaction. After all, there will be about 90 people in attendance with each of the 30 teams likely to be represented by at least a governor, an alternate governor and a general manager.

In a meeting of that size, leaks are inevitable and no one on the ownership side wants the players to take any solace from the possibility of a split in the ranks. Just to be on the safe side, they may even give Bettman a standing ovation -- and leak that information.

Even if there were serious dissatisfaction, it's unlikely that it would be aired on this occasion. When it comes to board meetings, Bettman has never been a champion of free speech.

Under his predecessor, John Ziegler, there were lots of committees, lengthy speeches and long debates -- at least until noon when the bar opened.

Bettman always has had a different approach, one that he learned under David Stern in the National Basketball Association.

He keeps most of the governors informed by fax and after each session of the recent failed negotiations, he sent a memo to each governor explaining what had happened. He also included an evaluation of the progress that had been made -- very little.

He also meets monthly with the executive committee, the coterie of owners of mostly struggling teams, to discuss problems with the league. Each of the eight members of that group then telephones two or three other owners to pass along an update.

It's a divide-and-conquer system which allows Bettman to defuse any difficult situation before it blows up in front of the full board.

On the one serious challenge to his authority -- delivered by Chicago Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz some four years ago -- Bettman responded with a devastating personal attack that reduced Wirtz to a speechless state and left the other governors staring in awe.

During his tenure, Bettman has tried to have three or four full board meetings each year, and usually, he has sent out an agenda in advance. But no formal agenda has been distributed for today's meeting.

NEXT STEP

The governors expect that Bettman will give a brief synopsis of the negotiations -- probably a matter of 15 minutes or so -- then give his view of the direction in which the league should go next.

He and most of the owners feel that it's imperative to get the talks re-opened as soon as possible. They want to pave the way for next season, and if they're to do so properly, they need more than their coveted cost certainty. They need season certainty.

Even if the two sides can reach an agreement to start the 2005-06 season on time, the longer the lockout drags on through the summer, the harder it will be for the owners to maximize their profit. And that is, after all, what this whole exercise has been about.


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