Because it's easier than splattering the owners.
Easier because he's had a lockout hat trick. Easier because he's a lightning rod for criticism and symbolic of all the elitist corporate hypocrisy that the players feel fuels the work stoppage.
But also easier because, inherently, the players don't want to believe their guy is the reason they're not collecting paychecks and letting the game die on the vine. They want to believe their owners and GMs are going through labor hell for a valorous reason beyond a cash grab. They want to believe their guy isn't the guy driving the lockout — Boston Bruins players, obviously, excluded.
Bettman's a terrible messenger, like having an IRS auditor breaking bad news to families in intensive care. Put the owners and players in a room without their respective hatchet men — Bettman and NHLPA chief Donald Fehr — and you end up with different lines of communication being opened.
Like when Trevor Linden, NHLPA president, listened to the late Harley Hotchkiss, the co-owner of the Calgary Flames and chairman of the board of governors, back in 2005.
Linden and Hotchkiss met in small groups that didn't have either Bettman or then-NHLPA chief Bob Goodenow present in the room, as their negotiations had become rancid and pointless. This allowed Hotchkiss to make his plea directly to Linden: That the NHL's small-market teams needed help to survive, and here's how the players can help them.
History has judged it differently, but Linden was framed as a capitulator to the owners when the lockout ended, as did the tenure of Goodenow. His conversations with Hotchkiss were seen as an influence.
So of course the NHL, at the this juncture, is willing to get the players and the owners in the same room for a dialogue, without Bettman or Fehr present. In theory, it's a great way to generate good will and new ideas.
In reality, it's just another run at the Fehr Filter, if it's not just a half-hearted PR gambit.
From ESPN.com, the post-federal mediation news about Bettman's meeting proposal:
The news wasn't 90 minutes old that mediation had failed to bring any progress in NHL labor talks when word surfaced that the NHL commissioner offered Thursday to NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr to have owners and players only in the next bargaining session (whenever that is) -- no league or union brass or staff.
I'll say this for the commissioner, this one caught everyone off guard.
"We want to find a way to get to a deal," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN.com via email Thursday evening, explaining the surprise offer. "Nothing else has worked. The commissioner felt that we might as well propose something different. We will see how they respond."
The NHLPA is said to be "considering" the offer.
If they accept, it'll be conditionally. Katie Strang of ESPN New York wants to see all the owners involved.
Two conditions: Allow all the owners to come, or at least a cross-section of them, and not just the few who have been involved in the negotiations, like hawk Jeremy Jacobs of the Boston Bruins. Allow lawyers to advise the players, so the seasoned businessmen don't have an unfair advantage.
Again, it's a nice idea: The players and owners, the ones who allegedly care about the game more than the soul-less fiends that represent them in negotiations, getting together to find common ground and bang out a deal.
But again: This is just the NHL's way to get Donald Fehr out of the room, and is using the "removal" of Gary Bettman from the process as a carrot.
Already, we've seen:
• The NHL proclaim for months that it does not "believe Fehr speaks for the players, and has hijacked the negotiations to suit his own ends."
• That, specifically, Fehr misled the players in an internal memo after negotiations in early November.
• The NHL giving general managers a 48-hour window that many of them never knew existed to speak directly to the player — without telling the NHLPA about the edict.
It's divide and conquer. Like a child getting what it wants from one parent after the other said "no", through the awesome power of flattery. Like a League that attempts to pry away the players from their leadership in order to fracture the union.
Don't let Roman Hamrlik fool you: It hasn't worked yet. But the League feels that Donald Fehr is the reason we're not playing hockey right now, and the tactic is to remove him from the process to open the players' eyes — like burning Indiana Jones with fire to snap him out of the Temple of Doom trance.
Perhaps they're correct, and Fehr's unwillingness to offer clarity and progress in the negotiating room is pushing the season to the brink.
Or perhaps they realize that he's got these players coalesced together like a Jacques Lemaire trap, and there's a better chance they launch the decertification nuclear option than there is that they'll cut a deal.
New offers. Mediation. Meetings without Gary Bettman in the room. The NHL is scrambling. Question is, is that a symptom of losing this labor war to the union or a collection of last-ditch efforts before they blow up the 2012-13 season?