Some people may have already seen this, but repositng a mailbag response from John Buccigross on ESPN.com regarding the CBA negotiations. I really think he hit it on the head with this response. And I think it echos and supports a Coyotes fan's perpecive of the Commissioner. Thoughts?
If there is any progress in the talks, are there any indicators that the two sides will agree to continue negotiations on the CBA and start the season? Or are the owners adamant for a lockout?
Question No. 1: That will not happen. Gary Bettman is an agent, the owners' agent, and a Scott Boras win-at-all-costs kind of agent. (They were born exactly five months apart in 1952.) It is what he is best suited for. A person or entity gets the best deal only when he or she has leverage. The more leverage, the better the deal. You will never get the raise you think you deserve at your job unless you threaten to leave. When you are willing to live out that threat, you have even more leverage. Remember, Bettman works for the owners. He has to deal with 30 of them and their various fiscal concerns, and Fehr.
When players start losing paychecks, Gary Bettman and the owners' leverage will accelerate no matter what unified front they put up. Players are rich, owners are wealthy, and there is a big difference. Boras' clients almost always test the free-agent market because that is the best way to make the most money, and as we know, the money scoreboard is the one some people are most interested in. Bettman-produced lockouts are designed to give his "players" (the owners) the best deal they can get. The "partnership" word he likes to throw out there during interviews is pure marketing and mostly fraudulent. As Fehr pointed out last week, the players don't have a say in marketing, promotion, franchise location, etc.
Bettman lives for this. He is a confrontational person who enjoys that battle. It's his Trivial Pursuit board game. Acquiring big-ticket corporate partners and negotiating CBAs are his primary jobs. His job is to increase the franchise value of the owners. That's it. He's largely done that, especially for the top-tier franchises, as is reflected in his salary. He has a high salary because he has been good for the owners; otherwise, he would be commissioner of the Arena Football League.
Bettman has the charm of a heavily starched shirt, but he is smart and relentless. He organized and professionalized the offices of the NHL, increased revenues and helped oversee the new-media infusion that has made this the best time, in terms of media access and information, to be a fan of the NHL. The NHL has an excellent website that is much better than the NBA's, an affordable Center Ice package, and excellent television partners in the U.S. and Canada. (I will let others debate the "The NHL should be on ESPN" argument.) The Winter Classic, the presentation of the Stanley Cup (excluding his involvement, which has to stop -- it's a distraction), "24/7" on HBO, and, yes, the expansion of the game in the U.S. are all good things, in my feeble mind, that have put the game in a good place.
There are those in the media who hate Bettman, and that certainly has contributed some to fans mostly despising him. There are others in the media, as Ray Ferraro (@rayferrarotsn) tweeted last week, "some media are totally in GMs' pockets and will parrot whatever they want." I'm not one of those media types. Just last week a former NHL player professed his hatred for Bettman to me in person, a common theme. When he asked me my opinion, I told him what I tell everyone: "None of us is perfect. I actually think he's been good for the game." Certainly the work stoppages are troubling, and from that perspective Bettman deserves criticism. But he deals with some interesting owners, especially among the high-revenue teams. NHL players are not unreasonable people. I think we all understand that.
Any on-ice problems that you might have with the league really can't be directed at Bettman. He has largely delegated that part of the job because his knowledge and understanding are limited. We all know deep down that he doesn't LOOOOVE the game like you do. He can appreciate the fans singing "O Canada" in Vancouver or the passion of the Stanley Cup playoffs, of course. But does he get that Christmas Eve feeling of a Bruins-Canadiens game in the middle of January? Probably not. He entrusts pretty much everything on the ice to other people. It's not his ball of tape.
At some point, owners might want to consider hiring a hockey person who can help lead and grow the game in terms of passion over currency. I'm willing to admit that the expiration date on Bettman's tenure might be arriving or has arrived. His lack of an on-ice connection seems to be growing. He is more comfortable at a climate-controlled, giant, corporate negotiating table than a cozy, cold rink. But again, this lockout is about the NHL figuring out how to help out teams that are bleeding money. The floor is too high for a lot of teams.
Question No. 2: Are owners adamant for a lockout? No way. It's obvious the big-revenue teams don't want one. The Rangers can charge more than $300 for a ticket and high rates for restroom advertising that smaller-revenue teams cannot. Low-revenue teams can't get to the salary floor. There is no way you can tell me the economy is better now than it was in 2005. Revenues might have gone up, but not $30 million a year for a team like the Blue Jackets. U.S. teams like the Rangers, Bruins, Blackhawks, Red Wings and Flyers have extremely high franchise values. And certainly other U.S. teams that have very strong fan bases and must be doing pretty well -- Buffalo, Pittsburgh, San Jose, Minnesota, Washington to name some -- certainly see the negatives in it for them.
The issue is one that goes back to the values at kindergarten. How much of the pie will owners share, and what is good for the game? I always have been in favor of as many NHL teams in the U.S. as possible (within reason) because NHL teams manufacture NHL fans, and that's how the game is grown. I believe there is enough talent in the world. It can be slower growth in some places than others, but it's a fact. And lack of traction is usually due to lack of success. Southern California and South Florida are now both producing high-end hockey talent. The game of hockey deserves to be everywhere; it's great enough to be everywhere. Will it not work in some places? Only if it is run into the ground by poor or unlucky management.
Are the Jets better off in Winnipeg than Atlanta? Of course. Would the Coyotes produce more revenue in Quebec City? Absolutely. Could things have been different in Atlanta? Well, the city had two chances. But the Thrashers made the playoffs once in their 11 seasons in Georgia. You know what the Atlanta Flames' career playoff record was? 2-15. Two and frickin' 15. That's not a fair measurable as to whether hockey would ever work in Atlanta. It took Phoenix 15 seasons to win a playoff series.
I know the NHL isn't a charity, but Bettman and the owners are stewards of the game. They have to recognize this, and the richest teams have to do a better job at sharing. The players know they have it good and know teams are struggling. They will probably give in to some salary rollback (10-15 percent) if that money is given to the struggling franchises. Hockey participation took a huge hit during the 2004-05 lockout. This week I called to sign up my son Jack for the annual readiness camp our rink in Connecticut has every late August. Canceled: not enough participation. The game is again being vaporized from the consciousness of American fans.
Hockey is a third-line grinder itself. That's why it has continued to survive, and really thrive, all these years while being led by suits who don't have the game's best interest in mind. But they are competitive. Too competitive, in fact. Flyers owner Ed Snider never wants to see the Penguins or Rangers win a Stanley Cup, but especially not before his Flyers. The Blackhawks did everything they could to pry Marian Hossa from the Red Wings. The players are trained to be selfless. Some NHL owners selfishly flex their false bravado with their regional checking accounts.
The NHL's problem is more about overzealous competitiveness than greed. Or maybe it isn't. Players know that they are nothing without a strong core. The best athletes have a strong core. That's true of any entity; a person, a company, a country. The selfish, rich teams have bludgeoned the middle-class teams with their opulent signing bonuses, end-around tactics and firm belief that their "success" is more skill and providence than it is geography, luck and accident of birth. Sound familiar?"