The tipping point

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! SportsJanuary 20, 2005

The hockey folks had a meeting Wednesday in Chicago, and neither NHL commissioner Gary Bettman nor union head Bob Goodenow were invited.

If we could make their exclusion from the game permanent, then maybe something good would come out of this lockout after all.

But that isn't going to happen and neither, it seems, is the NHL season, a sobering stomach punch to the sport's core fans just as the season should be heating up.

Much has been made about how few people in the United States really care that the NHL is locked out, but there still are plenty of us who do. A spring without the Stanley Cup playoffs is not a pleasant thought, no matter how clutch-and-grab and neutral-zone-trapped the game has become.

Most disturbing is why this battle is being fought in the first place.

It's not just your traditional billionaire vs. millionaire fight. And it is not just because Bettman and Goodenow are incapable of agreeing on whether it was cold in Minnesota this week.

The hockey season is about to die because the game's leadership has driven the league into the ground and still refuses to take its foot off the pedal.

Gary Bettman's insistence on cost certainty in the labor agreement is based on the need to create a welfare system that keeps weak franchises afloat.

This would be a noble goal, except most of the weak franchises were added during Bettman's grand (and failed) experiment with expansion in the 1990s.

In essence, the Atlanta Thrashers can't continue to operate – let alone compete with Detroit, Colorado and Toronto – unless payrolls are severely limited. That's because the market for hockey in Atlanta can't compete with the market for hockey in Detroit, Denver and Toronto.

Expansion will be bumbling Bettman's legacy, once his tenure mercifully ends. He gambled the NHL's future on the concept that bringing the league to the South would draw in enough fans to make the league truly national.

It was a sucker's bet and now the chips are due.

And if you are a loyal hockey fan, you are about to pay for it with one (or maybe two) lost Stanley Cup chases.

I could deal with missing a season if there were any hope that real solutions to the ailing league would come from it. Like if I knew half a dozen franchises would fold. Or if I thought the new collective bargaining agreement was about the NHL getting stronger and more efficient and not merely socializing salaries to maintain the preposterous status quo.

Or maybe if part of the deal included rule changes that would open the game back up and, we can dream, return the traditional hockey names to the conferences and divisions (the Wales Conference, Norris Division, and so on).

But it isn't. Bettman is loath to admit his expansion policy was a mistake that failed to expand hockey's fan base by the necessary numbers.

He refuses to admit that expansion watered down the talent base, killed off traditional rivals and confused longtime fans. He brushes off the fact the NHL's new deal with NBC is the same as the network has for arena football. He doesn't agree that the league is divided into markets that can sustain hockey and markets that can't, even if it is as obvious as a turnstile count.

Twelve years into his disastrous tenure, Bettman still thinks he's the smartest guy at the rink.

He insists on a salary cap that will save franchises which only need saving because they have too few fans who, barring a run to the Cup finals, actually care.

So people who love hockey aren't getting hockey as part of the pipe dream that people who don't get hockey might one day love hockey.

So bad is business that Bettman insists the only way it can work is by offering the NHLPA the worst contract in sports, a 55-percent cap. The NFL's will be 65.5 percent next season. The NBA has a soft cap at 63 percent.

Yes, the players need to make real-world concessions, bite the bullet and realize the gravy train days are over.

But longtime fans shouldn't have had to concede anything. Not that this commissioner has ever cared about longtime fans.

They supported the league long before Bettman came along and played mad scientist with it.

They shouldn't have to lose their sport because he can't let a free marketplace fix his failures.