Gary Bettman

This nonsense has been hanging over our heads, faithful NHL fans with an eye for labor unrest would agree, for probably close to 2 years, and what should be closer to 8, since the last time the league pulled this powerplay, and proudly broke the will and the leadership of the NHLPA.  There would have to be a rumble in the next CBA, and so here we are.  NHL Lockout 2012, in much the same fashion as they brought us NHL Lockout 2004 and NHL Lockout 1994.  And by many of the same offensive offenders.  Jeremy Jacobs, Ed Snider, Lou Lamoriello, and of course, the worst commissioner in professional sports, by a mile, the front man and lead goon in a record 3rd lockout, Gary Bettman.

We don’t care for the argument that he is only doing what he is told.  That’s not true.  The owners are doing what Bettman tells them to do, and not vice versa.  Bettman has tightened up the NHL bylaws so that the power of the commissioner is nearly indomitable, as the obviously very astute Ken Dryden reminds us in the recent article excerpted below:

In NHL governors’ meetings, Bettman would point this out, at first forcefully, over time as if possessed.  He presented elaborate charts: Here’s what the league and individual teams take in, here’s what we spend. It makes no sense. Here’s what winning teams spend, here’s what losing teams spend. There’s no correlation between spending and performance (there was, in fact, some correlation). It makes no sense.

He would run a roll call of teams, and one by one take team owners, with all their private business splashed up on a big screen for everyone to see, to the principal’s office. Here’s what you’re doing – you idiot – here are the results you’re getting – you moron – and, always prefaced by the anti-trust defeating phrase, “Of course, you have the right, as everyone does, to make any decision you want” – what are you going to do in the future – you total fool.

To get out of the principal’s office, team owners learned to respond as if at an AA meeting.


He had to get their support to change the NHL bylaws so that a higher percentage of team owners were required to override any proposed agreement with the NHLPA he brought to them. Then he’d need the support of only a few friendly owners, and the negotiations were his. He got the bylaws changed.

This is part of the reason he gets to so cockily tout his position in the negotiations, like saying “we simply feel we are paying the players too much money.”  Obviously, as is evidenced by the spate of huge contracts being offered by these owners, of their own free will mind you, they do not feel they are paying the players too much.  A small market team, for God sakes, offered the richest contract in history not once but twice in the same day, when Minnesota signed Suter and Parise.  BTW, we hate Parise, obviously, but could not argue at all when asked for comment on the labor situation, and he said “You know Bettman loves his lockouts.”

It’s another part of the reason, for the sport of it.  And what kind of guy gets off on depriving workers of their livelihoods?  Make no mistake about this, there are workers that are going to be deprived of their jobs.  All arena workers, and many ancillary workers, players aside.  This is not a good guy.  If you listen to his press conferences and interviews, do you not get the distinct impression you are hearing from a sheisty lawyer telling multiple lies a minute.  Forget that he invoked the price of jet fuel and hand massages when asked about inflation affecting the owners.  It’s not that.  It’s that he is a mean and vindictive labor leader and therefore, needs to be vigorously protected from by the union.  It’s also that he hasn’t come up as extremely intelligent when dealing with labor issues, franchise issues, potential owners, and just about all the really relevant issues affecting the league.

We haven’t thought much of him from the get go.  But apparently NHL owners are either none too hard to please or even less bright than Bettman himself.  And they don’t have too much more of a heart than Bettman either, sanctioning these lockouts, which almost feel like a rite of passage at this point.  Here is some very pointed criticism of Bettman from another good article on the looming lockout and specifically, on Bettman’s performance and on the league, from author and economist Andrew Zimbalist:

“It means it is poorly managed,” said our frank, 64-year-old professor of economics at Smith College in Massachusetts, and author of 20 books, including May The Best Team Win: Baseball Economics and Public Policy.

“Mr. Bettman, although he has some qualities that are admirable, has made a lot of bad decisions,” Zimbalist said this week, before Thursday’s confirmation that we are heading towards Bettman’s third lockout since becoming the commissioner of the National Hockey League in 1993. “He has not promoted effective management at the team level, and he is unwilling to admit his mistakes and walk away from them.”

Zimbalist calls the game’s popularity in the USA as on a “thin string.”  He criticizes Bettman for threatening the stability and popularity of the game in the US, and for insisting on a bad policy of expansion in the American southeast where he was in essence, forcing the game on little interested markets.  Yet he is the guy asking for a 15% reduction in salaries, a reduction that actually equates to a 17.3% reduction in salary when the league’s new definition of hockey related revenue is applied.

The owners are destined to fight, obviously at Bettman’s behest, because they feel that the players, who agreed to rollbacks and other severe concessions last time, could be broken again, should they apply a little financial pressure in the form of lost earnings.  The players need to fight because they got beat so badly last time.  They need to resurrect the reputation of the union, which once had a fine reputation as smart and tough, is now considered a laughingstock.

Things like that are gonna have a funny way of changing the perception with a guy like Donald Fehr running things for the players.  The players needed a good guy, and perhaps, they got the best guy there ever was in sports labor relations.  Is Fehr an evil lawyer himself?  A bit.  But he’s brilliant.  He’s a guy you know has thought through every angle.  So brilliant, and hammer him for this if you like, but he was able to keep accountable steroid testing out of baseball for years and years after the steroid problem had become a scandal and a black mark on the game.

For Fehr, that’s an opportunity to keep big stats in the game, which keep leading to record contracts.  As it is his job, first and foremost to fight for the union, and the big contracts are phenomenal for the union.  We can’t see how Bettman feels all that comfortable in this confrontation.  Zimbalist also feels that by offering the players a 15% reduction, that Bettman was negotiating from an “unreasonable position”, which smells like, at the very least, bad faith to us.

We think Fehr knows a lot of tricks that Bettman hasn’t seen yet.  We know he’s gone to school, to Harvard, essentially, on the NHL and it’s embarrassing practices.  And Fehr and the players both understand the necessity of re-making the union’s reputation.  That’s not the kind of thing that a guy like Fehr undertakes lightly.  He refused to open negotiations early, knowing full well of the league’s intend to lockout.  Fehr is not exactly shying away from this course of action.  He’s ready to fight, and he’s a guy who really has never lost a fight like this, in a league of his own.

We think the players are doing a good job in the press, as the owners unreasonable position seems ironclad.  The players winning press is going to help the players ultimately get a nice deal.  Once the fans and media become totally entrenched in their position as pro player, Bettman is going to drop the nonsense and talk turkey.  We see Fehr bamboozling Bettman at that time, in ways that Bettman won’t be able to figure out for a few good years of head scratching, just like every CBA, pretty much, that Bettman has gotten for his greedy, malicious owners.

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The undisputed heavyweight champion of collective bargaining, former MLBPA Director Donald Fehr (above).

Donald Fehr, who for months has worked for the NHLPA as an unpaid consultant, was unanimously voted the Director of the NHLPA yesterday, in what must be viewed as an ominous sign for NHL owners who bumble along with commissioner Gary Bettman, and stick their hands in the player’s pockets at every turn, or so they think.

Many believe the first shot in the battle for the NHL’s new collective bargaining agreement was fired this summer when the league defeated the union’s grievance over Ilya Kovalchuk’s contract with the Devils. Saturday, the players fired back – and with a big hired gun.

As expected, members voted overwhelmingly to appoint former baseball union head Donald Fehr as NHLPA Executive Director.

With the current collective bargaining agreement expiring in September of 2012, it is a sign that the union is preparing to play hardball. In a sport still recovering from the loss of the 2004-05 season because of a lockout, Fehr’s leadership of the baseball union during its 1994-95 strike raises concerns about yet another NHL season ruined by labor unrest.

Fehr tried to calm those concerns for the time being. “We treat a work stoppage, a strike, as a last resort. You consider it only when all alternatives failed,” Fehr said. “We certainly hope, and I certainly believe that the owners will treat it as a last resort, too. And so, if you would ask me if I anticipate a stoppage, the answer is no. And certainly hope we won’t have one. I am not going predict what is going to happen in negotiations.”

Foolishly, the NHLPA parted ways with their best ever Executive Director, labor shark Bob Goodenow, who navigated the league through a 10 day strike in 1992, a protracted lockout in 1994-1995, and a messy labor dispute that caused the unthinkable–the cancellation of the 2004-2005 NHL season.  Why?  Because Gary Bettman, a feverish proponent of hardball who loves nothing more than going to bat for small time cities and fraud owners who don’t deserve franchises, continually insists on hard salary restrictions to protect teams like the Nashville Predators, who scrape the bottom of the salary threshold and complain over every cent out of pocket.

Does Nashville really deserve a team?  Tampa Bay?  Florida?  Atlanta?  Bettman was happy to take the franchise start-up fees from these ownership groups and then watched them all flounder financially, while severely diluting the talent pool in the league to the point where they have had to change several basic rules of the game to promote scoring because scoring talent is so severely diluted that for a while, a team was lucky to have one legitimate scoring threat.  Then Bettman went to work on the players–attempting to basically strip them of a major slice of the salaries they earned–to help teams like the above mentioned while big market teams who are interested in putting out a quality product were constricted by a hard salary cap.

Goodenow was so sharp that he pushed for a clause that would see 10 year pros earning below the league average become unrestricted free agents.  When the clause went into effect, Bettman failed to realize that these unrestricted free agents would then receive greater compensation, thereby pulling up average salaries, and in turn, create more 10 year pros who would qualify for UFA status.  Bettman was steamed at having been out maneuvered, and was giddy when the players turned on Goodenow toward the end of the armageddon labor dispute that the league allowed to cancel out an entire season. 

Bettman has been true to the owners–especially small market owners–to a fault.  Has any league in the history of professional sport seen more owners go to federal prison?  On Bettman’s watch alone, we have seen fraudulent con artists suck as Bruce McNall, Dean Spanos, and Peter Pocklington go to jail, and in the case of Spanos, the league did not properly investigate his background and allowed him to buy the Islanders despite the fact the man had no money.

Bettman is in the major leagues now however, and frankly, he will most certainly be over-matched by Fehr, upon whose watch MLB salaries have become grotesquely bloated.  Fehr, so adept at out maneuvering the owners, refused to concede to steroid and amphetamine testing for several years, despite the fact that such drug use is illegal under the national laws of the nations where baseball is played.  The anonymous drug testing policy he instituted was a stroke of genius when it came to protecting player image and average salary, because steroid induced statistics were good for player contracts.

As for the NHL players, these guys are probably the most down to earth, hard working, for the love of the game, major professional athletes in the world.  And Bettman has grossly mismanaged the game’s television potential and international financial growth quotients, which Fehr, and his arrmy of publicists is sure to hammer him for.  Bettman is out of his league here.  Fehr has studied the NHL revenue streams and collective bargaining agreements since the minute he stepped down from the MLBPA in December 2009, and has gotten an even closer look as an unpaid consultant now for months. 

And Fehr has said that he will now basically dissect the entire league prior to agreeing to open negotiations with the NHL in the spring.  We’d hate to lose hockey again, but we are staunchly pro union here, and we seriously doubt that in this economy that teams or players will be willing to shut down a billion dollar industry.  We view the Fehr hire as an enormous get for the players.  He is just the man to get the players a good deal, and we have a healthy suspicion that both the NFLPA and NBAPA will wish they had rang him up as labor actions loom in both those leagues.

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