NHL -- shooting in the foot, instead of the net

A couple of hours before the hockey Czar, Gary Bettman, dropped the hammer that shamelessly locked out his entire workforce there were 20 characters dressed in Ranger's jerseys parading in front of the National Hockey League's Manhattan headquarters at Sixth Ave and 47th Street.

They were a scruffy bunch, ragged and messy, and brandishing crudely made placards likening Bettman to a Sesame Street character (whom he indeed faintly resembles) and decrying the greed of the people the Czar serves, namely that odd assortment of little men who own the teams that compose the NHL, although until further notice there is, of course, really no such thing.

And there was fleetingly the notion that maybe this downright pathetic scene of a mere handful of roughnecks caring enough to howl in feeble protest on a late summer's evening might be an accurate measure of what it all means and how much impact it might have. If so, it would be the unkindest cut of all for the great but very badly served game of professional hockey.

The players are pounding the bricks for the fourth time in 20 years, all of them under Lawyer Bettman's inglorious watch. Talk of your sporting records that may never be broken.

More than 300 players were in town hanging around a hotel lobby hoping for a miracle but in the final hours before the lockout was formally declared the two sides couldn't even stage one last session, if only for the exchanging of parting insults. The players were willing but the owners said they saw "no purpose." "I'm sure we will remain in contact in coming days," advised Bill Daly, Bettman's right-hand man. Well now that's encouraging, is it not?

This is the third major labor hassle to rock the kingdom of North American pro-sport in the last year and a half. The football boys while rolling in immense riches and runaway profits had the temerity to clash early last year but quickly recognized that the sporting public was in no mood for their nonsense and settled with only minimal intrusion on the pre-season. When the basketball guys followed suit they got even less sympathy and it was with panic that they settled after wiping out the first two months of their regular season to the utter indifference of said public. Widespread agreement that the shorter season was actually preferable only added to basketball's deep embarrassment.

In both instances, the games were bruised but the NFL and NBA owners still won by succeeding in modestly reducing the amount of gross revenues players receive under the salary cap agreements that govern both leagues to about a fifty-fifty breakdown. The players were willing to accept this because the prospect of greater revenues means there will be no salary cuts, only smaller increases. And they can live with that.

Perched on the sidelines and licking their chops the hockey moguls -- green-eyed with envy -- avowed they deserve and must have the very same action.

Now, in the exalted lodge of sporting moguls, the hockey owners are pipsqueaks. You should not for a half second believe that the Kraft's, Mara's, and Rooney's regard the likes of Clan Jacobs as equals. They may even deem the pretensions of hockey owners to be as laughable as the hockey players do. But the fact persists that it was the football and basketball owners who inspired their hockey lodge brothers.

Only, the hockey guys got carried away. Whereas the football and basketball owners sought and achieved only incremental changes in the division of spoils, the hockey barons want to take a meat-axe to the formula to achieve a quantum leap to higher profits.

Under their original proposal, the players' share would be reduced by a whopping 14 percent from 57 percent to 43 percent and while it's been vaguely suggested some adjustment might be possible the two sides remain more than a billion dollars apart according to the best informed and impartial source, the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper. Some estimate the players would -- roughly across the board -- be obliged to take more than a 20 percent pay-cut. For an industry that's showing a profit with revenues that have increased 50 percent over the last seven years that's pretty hard to justify.

The dividing of the pie is the big issue but the owners want more; much more. They seek major changes in key provisions of the collective bargaining agreement. They essentially wish to recall or at least trim the basic rights the players have earned in bloody labor battles over the last quarter century. The attack is total and radical. They want to roll back the clock and if they can destroy the union in the process, so much the better.

The idea that any bargaining group that calls itself a "union" could capitulate to such a campaign is ludicrous. No matter their posturing, the owners know that. They also know that the players are now represented by the strongest, most competent, and most experienced labor leadership they've ever had. In Don Fehr, the disciple of Marvin Miller who led the MLBPA in even more formidable battles with baseball's much more powerful owners, they have a tiger by the tail. And they know that too.

The strategy of the owners is totally baffling. How can they believe this "all out war" approach is smart, let alone has any chance of succeeding? Why would they undertake such a dubious strategy when they have so much to lose?

At risk, is a precious new two billion dollar TV contract with NBC, an appealing Winter Olympics arrangement, international growth, potentially satisfactory resolutions to ownership problems that have plagued the league for years, some very promising new revenue streams, and -- most importantly -- all the vital momentum the NHL has lately achieved in regaining the stature badly lost in their last labor bloodbath, eight years ago.

All this may be about to be squandered. And perhaps more! For if the NHL crashes again for an entire season -- and there is very definitely that possibility at the moment -- it may never come back; certainly not as we have known it. That may not be so bad, you may say. But a whole lot of good folks would get hurt in the process.

Why? Was it a fear of Fehr that concocted this strategy? Did the owners cleverly convince themselves that a fierce frontal assault would take the wind out of Fehr's sails, making him more vulnerable to the enticements of favorable compromise? Was this Bettman's dumb idea?

There are those much closer to the in-fighting than your host who claim Bettman doesn't make strategy or policy, only implements and enforces it. They say he's dogged and relentless in doing precisely what he's told to do by his owner-bosses under the aegis of the almighty Board of Governors, now chaired by your own beloved Bruins' owner, Jeremy Jacobs, and will mindlessly run through brick walls to get it done which is why the owners love him so dearly. He's a bulldog. There's no doubting that.

But when they talk about the great commissioners of sport, spare me any mention of Gary Bettman. All Commissioners must answer to owners for they are hired and fired by them. But the great Commissioners stand up to their owners, and even stand up for their players, now and again. And the very great commissioners find a way to move the men who hire and fire them to change their minds every blue moon or so, when it is a matter of doing the right thing. Gary Bettman does not meet this definition. He doesn't even come close.

In the end, though, it won't be Bettman but the Governors who will decide this thing and the thought that Jerry Jacobs now chairs the Board and will be their point-man one finds chilling. Nowhere in the corporate world will you find an owner of anything who is tougher, more street-smart, more schooled in hard-ball, or more willing to play it. Hang on, kids. It's going to be a bumpy ride!

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