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It was too long and too ugly but Gary Bettman's lockout delivered a better deal for NHL owners

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

If fans had their way, Gary Bettman would be gone. Short of that, he would never award the Stanley Cup again. Following his third lockout as commissioner of the National Hockey League, they don't want another chance to boo him. They would rather not see another of his fingerprints left on what they consider sacred.

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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. (Getty)

But if the lockout has reminded us of anything, it's that it doesn't matter what fans think of Bettman. It matters what the owners think. And so, when the NHL's board of governors ratifies the new collective bargaining agreement Wednesday in New York, it would be fascinating to hear the feedback Bettman gets from his bosses behind closed doors. If only we could.

Not everyone is happy with Bettman himself or the deal itself. Not by a long shot. This negotiation took too long and turned too ugly, and this CBA might not solve the league's underlying problems in the long run.

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Still, in conversations with top officials from both high- and low-revenue teams over the past two days, amid all the rancor and rumors about Bettman and his future, the commissioner continued to receive support. It could be the opinions of these particular people. It could be spin. But there it was.

Owners aren't fans, and they sure aren't sportswriters. They have different priorities than even their key employees -- their general managers, the men who spend their money and push the boundaries of the system. No wonder you hear hockey people griping that hockey people weren't involved in this.

There is no perfect system that is going to make everyone happy, especially with so many teams in so many different financial and competitive circumstances. Even if there were a perfect system for the owners, it would never get through the NHL Players' Association, especially when it is led by someone as strong as Don Fehr.

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Look at what the owners got out of this negotiation as a group -- again, as a group, not as individual clubs -- and three things stand out above all else: They cut the players' percentage of hockey-related revenue from 57 to 50 after transition payments, saving them billions of dollars in future salary. They limited contract lengths to seven or eight years, preventing the crazy deals that get them into trouble, reducing the long-term liabilities that hurt franchise values. They reached an agreement that will last at least eight years or as long as 10, locking in those gains and assuring labor peace for the foreseeable future.

The owners didn't get everything they wanted, let alone everything exactly as they wanted it. But that was never going to happen, and they got most of what they wanted without giving up much to do it within the context of the negotiation. They gave the players $300 million in "make-whole" money that doesn't make the players whole. They gave the players a defined-benefit pension plan, gave up some of the items on their wish list and bent in some other areas. But that's about it.

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Bettman and NHLPA boss Don Fehr. (AP)

Fehr and the players deserve credit for mitigating their losses -- and they're getting that credit even within NHL circles. As much as there were grudges against Fehr before, there is grudging respect for him now that this is over. Even though Bettman had the leverage of the lockout, it wasn't like he was going up against a weakling. He had a worthy adversary.

Bottom line: Bettman got a better deal for the owners than they had before, and he took the heat while they stayed in the shadows. It's awfully easy (and smart) for teams to pop up now, apologize to the public and imply they didn't like the lockout, isn't it? Bettman did his job, while Fehr did his. Now it's back to business.

There are internal criticisms of Bettman, but they come with caveats:

One, the reason this deal had to be better was because of the mistakes made the last time. The NHL canceled the 2004-05 season to force a salary cap on the players. Bettman had the players on their knees and didn't finish them. The old CBA said that if revenues rose to a certain point, the players would receive 57 percent. It turned out to be too much. The agreement also left too many loopholes for GMs and agents to exploit. That said, NHL players had been receiving 74 percent of revenues, players in other sports were receiving more than 50 percent of revenues at the time, and it was impossible to project how the economy and the CBA would evolve.

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Two, Bettman poisoned this negotiation from the start. Team officials suggested he level with the players, telling them up front the owners needed a 50-50 split and offering to talk about how to get there. They could have argued about how quickly the percentage would shrink from 57 to 50. Instead, Bettman offered the players 43 percent and attacked all their contract rights, ticking them off. Fehr responded by refusing to negotiate on a percentage basis until late in the process. The sides fought for months, the NHL had to come up with the "make-whole" thing, and for what? In the end, the players effectively will scale down from 57 to 50 over three or four years and keep most of their contract rights. That said, had Bettman not taken a hard line, had he shown weakness, how would Fehr have reacted? Would Fehr have seen an opportunity and been more aggressive? Would things have been even worse?

Finally, the rich teams don't love this deal, because even though the salary cap will be lower than it would have been, the savings will be offset by increased revenue sharing. The poor teams don't love this deal, because even though the salary floor will be lower than it would have been and won't rise at the same rate anymore, the core dynamic hasn't changed. The salary range is tied to league revenues. Rich teams will inflate it; poor teams will struggle to keep up. That said, as one executive put it, this deal makes it hard for most teams to lose money, and the increased revenue sharing -- some of which will be targeted for particular franchises in trouble -- can help in emergencies. For the majority of the league, this makes sense.

One day Bettman will be gone. He is 60 years old. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly is his heir apparent. But really, other than fans' blood lust, what's the difference if it's right now? The damage and the deal is done.

When the day comes, no matter if it's sooner or later, Bettman will leave a mixed legacy that will include the black marks of three lockouts, and he will have made gains for his bosses by doing the dirty work. Like it or not, it really doesn't matter whether he awards the Stanley Cup ever again. His fingerprints are all over this game and this business, and they will be for a long, long time.

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