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The ones responsible remain unscathed

2/16/2005

Well, we have a winner in the NHL's Great Lemming-Off.

Bud Selig.

The baseball commissioner, who has been a magnet for public abuse through much of his tenure, comes off like Doctor Suave when compared with Gary Bettman.

Then again, Bettman has merely done what he has been told to do. So when he stood before an incredulous continent to explain as best he could why the National Hockey League has shut itself down, he was doing so for 30 folks standing behind the curtain nodding at each other saying, "Yeah, we sure showed them, by cracky."

Bettman did his best to explain the inexplicable, and did so for about an hour by doing repeated remixes of the same touching ballad, "The Union Is Completely Guilty."

Even when he was asked whether management bore any responsibility for the closure of the season, he said he regretted that he couldn't persuade the union to read the league's books. That's not taking responsibility, that's delegating blame, and the one thing we know about Bettman is that he has been relentless and consistent in the blame delegation area.

He had a much harder time convincing anyone that hockey fans almost unanimously want the union crushed, that the final difference between the two sides' offers was $195 million rather than $6.5 million per team, that the sides were actually not close at all, that the owners did all the moving and the union did none, that it was a good idea to exchange final offers by fax rather than in person, or that the owners even wanted what he termed "a quickie season."

He surely couldn't convince anyone that there is no animosity between him and union boss Bob Goodenow, even though it isn't hard to get a different answer if you ask Bill Wirtz or Peter Karmanos or the owners in Edmonton or Calgary.

In other words, what he was selling doesn't have a lot of buyers, certainly no more than Goodenow's yap-fest later in the day, because the central truth remains the same -- this was not a battle over principle but over who eats whom.

Bettman blathered on about the players not "partnering up," a silly word and a sillier concept, given that the owners don't want partners but employees, preferably supine ones.

He complained that the players wouldn't look at the teams' books as though the books as presented represented the actual facts of each team's truest revenues.

And he could not have said often enough that the owners could have lived with a cap figure at $42.5 million, even though most teams are routinely well below that figure.

What this tells us clearly and unambiguously is that this was about making Goodenow say, "I give," not once but several times. The 24 percent salary rollback was more than the players thought Goodenow would offer, and the salary cap was more than the players thought Goodenow would accept, and Bettman still said it wasn't enough.

Thus, this wasn't really about the difference between $42.5 million per team and $49 million per team, but about the owners wanting the union (and especially its leader) punished for the profligacy of their own partners.

So they've skated to a scoreless tie in hell. As for actual winners and losers, well, you'd be surprised.

Winners include:

The National Lacrosse League.

Televised poker where hockey used to be.

CBC's national tradition, "Movie Night In Canada."

The sports that will scoop up the advertising money once spent on hockey.

The arenas that can now book more concerts, dirt bike races and home shows, and rent out the Zambonis for children's parties.

The season ticket-holders who suddenly discovered an extra $5,000 and more in their wallets.

Publishers who can now contract out books titled, "How Hockey Ate Itself," and the hockey writers who will write them.

Gary Thorne, Barry Melrose and Darren Pang at the Atlantic 10 basketball tournament.

Losers? Well, fewer than you might think, actually. Yes, the fans and the people who work in the NHL and its emanations, but they were going to take the initial beating anyway because they always take the initial beating. Doesn't make it any easier, true, but they can no longer say that they haven't been given sufficient time to get over their disillusionment and move on to more sensible and permanent pastimes.

Oh, and the game itself, but nobody seemed to give the game a whole lot of thought when this process began, so it's hard to see anyone fretting about it now that it has been thrown overboard.

But the principals themselves -- well, untouched so far.

Goodenow may have lost some of his hardliners by agreeing to the idea of a cap, but he'll win them back now that it's clear that the owners were after far more than that from the very beginning -- and that the players could never give enough to satisfy.

Bettman looks like a helpless yutz to the uninitiated, but to the owners grateful that they weren't the ones at the news conference, he is as golden as ever. He has held their line and will take whatever public abuse is sent their way. It's called being the good soldier, and Bettman delivered in spades.

The owners get to look tough to one another, and they are sufficiently insulated by Bettman from the people who would ask them, "Why do you even bother?"

And that's the real problem here. The people who caused this haven't felt nearly enough pain yet, which is why we are nowhere close to a solution. Clip and save that last sentence, because it will be just as useful this coming October when the next season doesn't start on time either.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.