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Column: Bettman fiddles as NHL lockout looms

Wednesday - 9/12/2012, 4:09am  ET

By JIM LITKE
AP Sports Columnist

(AP) - All these years later, and especially now with the prospect of a lockout looming large this weekend, it's hard to look at a picture of Gary Bettman without recalling the going-away present one NBA general manager sent the soon-to-be-named NHL commissioner. That was in 1993, when Bettman left his post as general counsel and trusted lieutenant to NBA boss David Stern to try running a league of his own.

"I gave Gary a puck," Pat Williams, Orlando's GM at the time, chuckled, "and he spent the rest of the day trying to open it up."

Some fans latched onto the joke as though it actually were proof that Bettman knew bubkes about hockey. Others argued his grand plan to put the game on an equal footing with the other major North American pro sports leagues was bound to fail so long as Bettman kept trying to sell it in towns where _ as the joke goes _ the locals' familiarity with ice began and ended with a drink glass.

Yet the speed and quality of play across the NHL never has been higher, and rarely has it been more entertaining. Revenues are up, the value of franchises and players' salaries are way up, the league has a real _ if still modest _ national TV deal and it's no longer sweeping safety concerns like concussions and fighting under the rug. If his haphazard expansion plan weren't such a drain on resources and a continuing source of labor-management strife, Bettman's hockey IQ wouldn't be an issue in this current debate. But either way, his ego should be.

That's why I keep picturing Bettman sitting at his desk, turning the black rubber disc over in his hands, desperate to unlock some still-undiscovered secret. There's no mystery what the game lacks _ competitive balance between the rich and poor teams _ or what it needs most at the moment _ a new collective bargaining agreement _ and the solution to both problems, like that puck, are within the commissioner's reach.

The two sides are far apart on how to divide a pie that's grown from $1.9 billion the year before Bettman and the owners sacrificed the entire 2004-05 season, ostensibly to get fixed labor costs, to $3.3 billion by the end of 2011-12. The players already have said they'll keep playing and take less money _ that after taking a 24 percent cut in pay under the last deal _ but only if the owners use those savings to help prop up the have-nots in the league. That's where Bettman can make a difference.

Revenue-sharing has been a fact of life in the NFL for more than five decades, and the parity that resulted has been instrumental in pro football's rise to the top of the sports heap. And despite the other differences between players and owners that nearly led to a labor war little more than a year ago, the NFL retained that part of the bargain. The NBA canceled nearly a fifth of its regular season last year trying to claw back more money from the players and strengthen the hands of poorer clubs, but wound up settling for less of each rather than sacrifice the rest of its games. MLB learned that lesson the hard way after shutting down the remainder of the 1994 season to get the kind of cost-certainty they have yet to achieve. Because fans were slow to return, baseball's owners changed their strategy, settling for more moderate concessions in every subsequent negotiation.

Bettman and his owners, however, seem determined to swing for the fences. They thought they'd hit a home run after canceling all of the 2004-05 season to get a hard salary cap, especially after the fans came back the following season and revenues rose to their current levels. All the tough talk so far suggests they're prepared to do the same thing again.

"We believe that we are paying more than we should be," the commissioner said recently, noting the average player salary has gone from $1.45 million to $2.45 million under the previous deal. "They've said publicly they'd rather keep playing under this deal. My sense is they prefer to keep things the way they are, and that kind of slows up the process."

NHL Players' Association chief Don Fehr, who made his reputation representing baseball players, countered, "Employers would always like to pay less. That's not a surprise to anybody. It's disappointing sometimes, but it's not a surprise. From the players' standpoint, they want a fair agreement, one that is equitable and one that recognizes their contribution."

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