Column: Bettman, NHL owners suffocating the game once again

By Steven Petrella

Before the people of Vancouver took to the streets during a riot in June of 2011, lighting cars on fire and causing more than $5 million worth of damage, they stuck around to see the Boston Bruins hoist the Stanley Cup.

But instead of congratulating or booing the team that prevented the hometown Canucks from winning their first Cup in franchise history, the people of Vancouver booed one man. They booed commissioner Gary Bettman, not because he handed the cup to the

Bruins, but because of how much he has hurt the game in his time running the show. Those boos were loud, and they were warranted.

Now, because of the NHL owners and the leash they have Bettman on, the league will see its second lockout in less than a decade. There was no hockey in the 2004-05 season, and it appears players will miss more time this year after a new collective bargaining agreement couldn’t be reached by midnight Saturday. Since he became the commissioner in 1993 — the 1994-95 season was also shortened to 48 games — not a single CBA has rolled over without a lockout. That, to me, is a failure on the commissioner, and I would hope the owners finally cut him loose when this is all settled.

The NHL Players Association and the league’s owners cannot reach an agreement because of multiple issues, including revenue sharing and salary cap and contract restrictions. The players want the 57 percent agreed upon in the previous CBA, and the owners want to give them just 49 percent, and eventually 47, as the six-year deal progresses.

Is it all on Bettman? Absolutely not. The owners have to have their best interests in mind, because they assume the risk when buying these franchises. Being a commissioner is a thankless job, and I’d feel a little bit sorry for Bettman if he were making less than the $8 million he earns annually.

The bottom line is that the NHL and the game of hockey itself grew under the previous collective bargaining agreement — revenue was up from $2.1 billion in 2004 to $3.3 billion last season.  The annual jump had been about seven percent per season since the work stoppage.

The last lockout also hurt youth involvement.  According to statistics from USA Hockey, participation grew each year from1990-2004.

The two years following the lost season saw the organization lose a total of 18,488 players — or five percent of its total.

Youth programs eventually feed the NHL, and more involvement helps on all levels, from coaches and officials to fans and players.

Instead of worrying about gaining an 8 percent revenue swing right now, Bettman and his cronies should settle, get players on the ice and continue to expand the sport and its brand throughout the United States and the world.

These negotiations hinder mostly on filling the owners’ pockets, instead of growth of the sport, which would eventually fill their pockets anyway. In time, the game would have continued to grow.

The more exposure the league gets through the excitement the sport brings, the better. But for at least the next few weeks, and possibly beyond, the league will get no exposure, because there won’t be anything to watch.

As Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News pointed out in a column this weekend, Bettman’s legacy is at stake here. Back in 2004-05, he won the lockout. The owners loved him for bringing significant change to the league and ousting the NHLPA’s top guns.

But no serious fan of the NHL actually likes what Gary Bettman has done in his 20-year tenure; myself included. He was hired in 1993 to stop the uneasiness in labor, but instead, the opposite has happened. He avoids the tough questions. He has over-expanded the league into markets like Phoenix and Columbus, which struggle to support a team. The players despise him, and there’s no changing that. All he has left is the owners.

The NHL is operating much more efficiently than it was in 2004. Players took a 24 percent cutback then, and the owners are still taking a larger percent of the pie than they were seven years ago. Rightfully so, the players don’t feel like it’s fair.

So the owners are making more money, and the fan support is increasing. I really fail to see the problem here and wonder why an agreement hasn’t been reached.

As supporters of the NHL, we’re backed against a wall. We would love to punish the commissioner for taking away what we love.

But we can’t, because I know when the NHL finally resumes, whether it’s in a month, a year or a decade, I’ll still be watching, and many others would be too.

And Gary Bettman is probably grinning, because as he did in 2004, he’ll win again in 2012, and the owners will get their pockets filled, and he’ll collect his $8 million a year, not really caring what the fans thought about him.

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