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Column: Commissioner has to convince NHL owners concessions will make the league stronger

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 labour-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 labour 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 per cent 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 labour war little more than a year ago, the NFL retained that part of the bargain. The NBA cancelled 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 cancelling 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."

After forcing MLB owners to agree to an increase in how much revenue the rich clubs transfer to poorer clubs, mostly through the use of a luxury tax, he's determined to make sure that any increase in revenue-sharing among NHL clubs isn't dependent solely on how much his players give back. Under the current CBA, teams share about $150 million, a figure that would rise to $190 under the league's latest proposal, with nearly all the increase funded by givebacks from the players. Fehr says the players' association wants the revenue-sharing pool to increase to $250 million and he has a history of getting what he wants, too.

Bettman and the owners would be wise not to test his resolve, or assume the players lined up behind him aren't more unified and much better organized than they were coming out of the 2004-05 layoff.

So far, it's Bettman's side that's showing a lack of discipline. Some of the rich clubs have already banished a few of their expensive mistakes to the minors to stay under the current salary cap and 16 clubs—more than half the league—would be over the $58 million cap proposed by the NHL for the 2012-13 season. But that hasn't stopped the well-off, and even a few of the less well-off teams, from finalizing big-bucks signings in recent weeks.

After not meeting face to face since last week, negotiations resume Wednesday at the league office in New York. If those talks fail because Bettman can't convince his owners, especially the ones turning a handsome profit year after year, to take what they can get and start sharing revenues in a meaningful way, he can expect plenty of blame and it won't be long before that puck in his hands starts to feel like a hot potato.

___

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.

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