SUN Hockey Pool

Bettman backs himself into Plan B corner

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:42 AM ET

After Tuesday's meeting of the National Hockey League board of governors, commissioner Gary Bettman was asked if there had been any significant expressions of unhappiness from the owners.

"I don't believe so," he said.

That was it. No elucidation. No explanation. Just a blank stare that indicated it was time for the next question.

It sounded like a reasonable answer at the time. But a day later, after some of those governors who sprinted out of the meeting with sealed lips had returned to their respective cities, it would appear that Bettman's answer was somewhat off the mark.

Or, perhaps Bettman has a different view than the rest of us as to what constitutes an expression of unhappiness.

If people raise their voices at you, are they unhappy? What if they tell you you'd better not let the shutdown extend into next season? How about being reminded extremely forcefully how much money you've cost the better teams?

The full meeting was cordial, but in the executive session the temperature reportedly rose considerably.

Don't assume from this that Bettman's job is in jeopardy. That would be a far too sensible course of action for these people. Instead, the league's successful teams, for reasons only they understand, allow him to systematically reduce the value of their corporations while he pursues his goal of furthering the cause of people he lured into a poor investment in a sport they don't understand.

Publicly, all the governors present a united front. After Tuesday's meeting, most of the unhappy owners waved at the media and dashed for their limos. When Bettman's pawns came out, they actively sought out the microphones to assure all within range that the commissioner was their own version of Lewis in the FedEx ads.

But in the executive meeting, Bettman was told that no matter what means he has to use, the owners, whether they be weak or strong, expect a full 2005-06 season.

That gives him two choices. He must either get a negotiated settlement or break the union.

There are those who suspect that the second choice has been his intention all along. The league's chief legal officer, Bill Daly, denied it.

"Since our primary objective coming out of this meeting is to get back to the table with this union and do a deal, I would say it's an unfounded speculation and has no basis in fact," he said.

But let's suppose that in a discussion when Bettman locked out the players on Sept. 15, someone said to you: "I think the players will offer a 24% wage rollback, accept two-way arbitration, minimize entry-level salaries, eliminate the 10% increase for free agents below the league average, and agree to accept a salary cap."

What would you have said?

Surely it would have been: "Well, if the owners get all those concessions, a deal will be done for sure."

The owners did get all those concessions. And still, the season was cancelled.

So, logically, that can mean only that at no time did Bettman ever intend to settle for a deal that was fair to both sides. As Bettman's friend, NHL negotiator Bob Batterman, has said: "Negotiations have nothing to do with being fair."

Bettman, it appears, would settle only for a hard salary cap at a level of his choosing, and he would get that, even if he had to break the union to do so.

Not having achieved the first option through negotiation, he now has to resort to the second.

That's why he won't rule out the possibility of replacement players. It's a desperate step, a virtual legal minefield, but he has no choice now. He promised too many owners a hard cap and he is backed into a corner.

If the owners think replacement players will restore credibility to their sport, they have been misled. It will only make the NHL more of a travesty than it is already.


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