Blame owners for placing season on the brink

For months, my stand during the lockout has been a resounding "pox on both houses," primarily because of the galling absence of negotiations both before, and especially after, the locks clicked shut at 12:01 on Sept. 16. For nearly three months, the mutual intransigence and ongoing game of "chicken" was inexcusable and insulting to those rooting for the return of the league.

But now?

One faction deserves more scorn and blame.

The owners.

They're big boys, men of affluence and influence. In the past six weeks, after the players' stunning offer of 24 percent salary rollbacks, there was a golden opportunity for serious negotiation that could have salvaged the season long before the league arrived at the edge of the cliff. But not enough of them stepped out of the shadows to say, both privately and especially publicly:

Enough of this crap. Let's get this done.

That wouldn't have been undercutting the league position or stabbing the
less reasonable owners in the back.

That would have been the right thing to do, both economically and otherwise.

After the NHLPA's Dec. 9 offer, some sort of reasonable compromise -- whether a heavily punitive luxury tax combined with some sort of modified salary cap system, or anything else -- could have been nailed down through serious negotiations. We'll even grant the NHL its right to brinksmanship, by responding to the union's rollback offer with a package five days later that essentially mocked the NHLPA.

But since then, the owners have blown it.

That is a collective condemnation and comes with the accompanying acknowledgment that the 30 ownerships aren't even close to being as single-minded as the NHL front office has portrayed them to be. Plus, as few as eight owners could scuttle any settlement, which is something Gary Bettman and Bill Daly had to keep in mind at all times.

There are fissures in the owners' ranks, as there are in the union membership. We all know that, right? Detroit's Mike Ilitch is not of like mind with Edmonton's Cal Nichols, who conveniently picked out this week to say that if the next collective bargaining agreement doesn't include "cost containment" measures, the franchise will he shut down. (How many think Nichols wasn't prompted to speak up, just as the small-group sessions got going again?) Bettman and Daly have obviously heard from some owners who want to play this season and are pressuring the league to reach a deal. And there are players out there at least letting it be known that they believe the union should be reaching for the pen. Yesterday.

The point is, though, that the owners have never been 30 men being led around on leashes by Bettman -- or if they are on leashes, they're pulling in different directions. It's naïve to think that Bettman is that powerful.

Instead of citing ridiculous cone-of-silence "policy" that doesn't fool anyone into believing 30 tycoons all think alike, owners of influence and reason should have been pushing for negotiation. Not capitulation, not spineless cowering, not anything but hard-nosed negotiation.

Bettman has said that the "policy," by the way, was instituted by the owners themselves as a bylaw, and he only enforces it. He has also said owners are
free to talk about how a CBA could affect their franchises, but not about the league in general. That's lame rationalization, and many of the owners who should be speaking out -- such as Colorado's Stan Kroenke -- have cited it as a shield to avoid talking about hockey at all.

They have been wimps.

And it's going to cost them, if this season is scrubbed. Sometimes the cost isn't measured in dollars and cents. If all of this leaves us feeling as if the darkest charges about NHL intentions -- that the goal from the start of at least enough owners who could sabotage a settlement was to bag the season -- then that's one more bit of ancillary damage. Barring the complicated declaration of impasse and imposition of the last offer, a process that will have more hurdles than Edwin Moses faced in any of his 400-meter races, a settlement in January 2006 isn't going to be that much different than what serious negotiations over the past month could have forged.

Yes, a year's worth of contracts will have been eaten up, but that's penny-wise and pound-foolish -- relatively speaking.

If the season dies, season-ticket lists in many markets will erode. In the more successful markets at the moment, the lack of the NHL on some local cable operations will have a ripple effect on many ownerships' various holdings. The sport's national image will sink even further.

They never should have let it come to this.

They are the folks with the power.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the recently published "Third Down and a War to Go," and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."