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It seems like these days Gary Bettman can't go out in public without someone yelling at him, and in some ways that's fair enough.
After all, whether it's fair or unfair, he is the public face of this lockout, and if the NHL players are so blind or unwilling to see who's really driving it — between Twitter and the hilarious and not-at-all-childish "Puck Gary" hats, there's a case to be made that it's probably willful ignorance rather than the legitimate kind — then one can't really expect Joe Sixpack to pick up on the subtle nuances of big-money labor negotiations.
And so it was that the last two times Bettman has deigned to grace the media with a little bit of facetime, during which all manner of softball questions can be lobbed at him so as to better aid him in spin-spin-spinning the actual facts of this lockout, some angry fan has in some way confronted him about the pain Bettman is causing him and his brethren around North America.
The first time it happened was in Toronto, on the day Bettman and the owners turned down not one, not two, but three NHLPA proposals for a new CBA, on the basis that they were not put forth by the league itself and therefore not worth the paper upon which they were printed. A few hours prior to that, as Bettman and the league contingent of silent film-style villains entered the building, a well-dressed fan named Barry Murphy approached the commissioner and asked him some rather pointed questions about what the league planned to do to re-enfranchise all the fans it has disenfranchised throughout this arduous and frustrating process.
Not that it went well or anything, since Bettman lied right to the guy's face about getting a deal done in a timely fashion (as you might expect he would), but it was headline-grabbing and a mostly harmless interaction.
Not so much with the sweathog who started shouting at Bettman on Wednesday, who had some pretty dumb, not especially fleshed-out ideas about how the league could solve the lockout (putting the disputed difference in escrow? What does that even mean?) and generally made a fool of himself.
In cases like these, it's pretty easy to see why the league considers fans stupid and beneath its contempt.
To his credit, though, Bettman does seem perfectly willing to engage fans in a little bit of a discussion. And since the media is doing absolutely nothing to nail his ass to the wall for the absurd comments he makes whenever he gives mini-pressers, someone has to, right? So if you're walking down the street in New York or Toronto and find yourself within 50 feet of Bettman and a cadre of media members with recorders and cameras ready, you're going to need to put a little more thought into the kinds of questions you ask him.
Maybe try leading with, "What do you mean when you say the union is unwilling to negotiate?
This is the biggest Bettman lie of all of them, and any time he says it, you know the needles on the BS detectors for everyone in the media not named Darren Dreger starts pinging like a seismograph during the 1904 San Francisco earthquake. However, the above question is one that I've never heard asked by anyone at any point in this process. Bettman repeated it to that guy on Wednesday in the middle of a long and frustrating series of sentences, and I can't imagine it's a question that would prove comfortable to answer.
The obvious facts are that the union has been perfectly willing to negotiate, as evidenced by the fact that they presented a very legitimate proposal yesterday that is far more in the same language the league wants it to be in than previous offers. What Bettman means is that the union is unwilling to negotiate according to the parameters the league wants, and only those parameters. As Don Fehr once said, "To the comma."
Since he probably won't answer that one, at least in any sort of meaningful way, you might next want to move on to, "In what way have you been more willing than the union to negotiate?"
Another tough one to answer, but the obvious spin will be that the league made significant moves toward the union's position throughout the process, but that's the equivalent of me saying to you that you have to pay me $1 million for no reason and, when you protest, I "move toward your position" and say it's only $500,000.
That's not real movement, of course, because this is a deal in which the owners were always going to get everything and give relatively little, if anything. Now that they're going after contracting rights, it's even harder to make this argument. So actually, why not also ask, "Why are you going after contracting rights after you said before that they wouldn't be that big of an issue?" That'll be another tie-tugger for the commish, if nothing else.
Bettman is, of course, able to bob and weave against tough questions like Muhammad Ali in his prime, and can counterpunch pretty well too. The latter point is certainly illustrated by Bettman's bold foray into his old bag of tricks: Saying that at this point, any deals the league offers to the union will be worse for players than what was previously on the table. He said that on Sept. 15, when the lockout started, but hasn't run that one up the flagpole in a while. Now it's back, and isn't that interesting? The obvious question to ask, then, is, "How can you say the deal won't get better?"
History tells us that, first of all, he thought the owners were slicing the union's achilles tendons in 2004-05 and doing the owners a huge service, but that obviously wasn't the case since we're now sitting through another lockout. But if the owners have, by Bettman's own admission, routinely moved toward the PA's position on a number of fronts, why does he continue to bang the "This is the best I can do" drum like a used car salesman?
(For that matter, and to give some amount of equal time here, so does Fehr.)
Clearly, "the best you can do" has not yet seen the light of day, especially because, again, this is a deal in which the owners are getting nothing but concessions from the union, and it's not a two-way street. It's very curious to see a man continue to deliver the same lie that the stuff he says and does also contradicts regularly.
Finally, you might want to ask, "What's in it for me to continue to care about this league?"
Cost certainty was the name of the game in 2004-05 and so too was lower ticket prices. Well, the fact of the matter is the average ticket price in the league is now 39 percent higher than they were back then. And yet the league is turning out its pockets and crying poor, while also noting that it loses $18 million a day due to the lockout (which, by the way, is its own fault because the players didn't lock themselves out).
Will ticket prices come down after this lockout? Will Center Ice or Gamecenter Live be free for a year? Don't hold your breath. You're still expected to pay $30 to park anywhere within a square mile of the arena, fork over large sums for tickets, keep paying the crazy amounts of money for low-quality replica jerseys, mediocre hot dogs and watered down beer, and be glad hockey's back because you like it so much.
That's why Bettman was very careful to thank the guy in Toronto and the lout in New York for "being fans." Who else are he and the owners going to bleed for money?
Pearls of Biz-dom
We all know that there isn't a better Twitter account out there than that of Paul Bissonnette. So why not find his best bit of advice on love, life and lappers from the last week?
BizNasty on odd happenings: "Anyone else find it weird Mary Swanson went on a date with Harry Dunn while her husband was kidnapped and held for ransom?"
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