When Gary Bettman and the NHL players association finally sign off on the next collective bargaining agreement it should be the last action taken by the much maligned commissioner for his much maligned league. It’s time to step aside.
Of course, that could be in a week, month or year, but whenever the sides come to terms it needs to be the end for Bettman.
Let me be clear, Bettman might be right about every aspect of this fight (though he’s not), yet he’s still in the wrong. Simply put, his bedside manner has been horrific. His negotiating tactics have been awful. We’ve all forgotten what the definition of commissioner used to be. It’s faded over the last couple of decades. Call me naïve but last time I checked Bettman is the commissioner of the league. That includes the owners, players, zamboni drivers and Blackhawks Ice Girls. When exactly did the word commissioner become “puppet for the owners?” He should be held to a higher standard and that includes in the negotiating process, even if he is representing the owners.
Should we count the ways he’s been awful? How about just a couple?
Bettman and the owners set a bad tone right off the bat with their first public offer to the players last summer. It asked for everything except for their first-born. It was ridiculous to expect an intelligent response let alone a nuanced one. If you’re going to take so much from someone -- and ask them willingly to give it -- you better have more tact than Bettman and his group showed. Mistake No. 1.
But the biggest gaffe by Bettman is in regards to a possible rollback on existing contracts in whatever form he’s asking. In talking to players it’s easily been the most consistent issue they have a problem with. And it’s completely understandable why they would be miffed.
It’s doubtful all the players or members of the media or maybe even all the owners understand all aspects of the economics of the fight at hand. There are so many moving parts it can give you a headache to think about it all. But one thing that everyone understands -- from small towns in Canada to Moscow, Russia -- is the concept of a contract. You sign it, they sign it, we have a deal. Ironclad. You show up to practice and games on time and I pay you every two weeks during the season. A contract isn’t just a business agreement. There’s an emotional attachment to it. A player works his entire life to sign an NHL contract and once he signs it he expects to be paid what is stipulates. Same as you and I in the real world.
Again, maybe Bettman is right. Maybe they should give some money back for the betterment of the league, but that sales job has to be the best he’s ever done. He needed to go “door to door” to each player and sell that -- if it could be sold at all. The NBA tried to sell it and it got shoved right back in their faces. No player in either of those leagues with an existing contract is making less than their contract called for after their labor issues were resolved. Under the current NHL revenue intake players are being asked to give back 12.3 percent of their current salaries, unless they can change the formula and make good on those lost wages. That’s an argument that simply can’t be made or needs to be made with a whole lot more tact. It’s breaking their contracts. Why doesn’t Bettman see how important that is to a person?
In short, no matter who is right or who is wrong, Bettman has been a terrible negotiator. That’s undeniable unless you simply ignore the facts. As Jonathan Toews pointed out recently, this has been a pattern under his regime. Three work stoppages under two different union heads with the possibility of a second canceled season in a decade. The results speak for themselves. The details are meaningless.
When I think of Bettman I think of the contrasting style of Hawks president John McDonough. I can’t imagine McDonough using the same tactics Bettman has employed. Just look at how he runs the Hawks. McDonough -- by his own admission -- can be tough to work for but he gets the best out of his staff nonetheless. And the Hawks are considered one of the best organizations in hockey because of it. And therein could be the key to this whole mess. If Bettman could get his way -- like McDonough seemingly does with his people -- but do it while the players at least believe they aren’t getting run over, then maybe this could have ended a long time ago.
He has no nuance, he has no tact. He should never hand the Stanley Cup over to another captain again. How much louder can the boos get when he does?