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What Bettman really meant

10/4/2004

Early in the lockout, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman sent a letter to
the league's season-ticket holders. His message was familiar, because it
essentially repeated the same messages -- in many of the same phrases -- he
has been delivering for months, in news conferences and other appearances.

It was fine as far as it went, with the stipulation that he didn't
get into much detail and he was calculatingly predictable and bland.

Here's what we believe he could have written if he had dared to be
blunt about his true feelings in some areas, didn't waste everyone's time
with the league's most ridiculous arguments and also had his finger on the
pulse of fandom:

(Timeout. Before we get to that, we have to add the disclaimers in the
Internet, modern-media age. THIS IS NOT GARY BETTMAN SPEAKING, SO DON'T GO POSTING THIS ON SOME BULLETIN BOARD, SAYING: "Wow, did you see what Bettman said!" This is our perception of what he COULD say.)

Dear Season Ticket Holder:

There won't be any NHL hockey for a while. Maybe for quite a while.
Maybe for over a year.

We've locked out the players because the past Collective Bargaining
Agreement wasn't working. But we don't have to tell you that, right? Most
likely, when the invoice came from your tickets, your eyes popped out
farther every year and you asked yourself how -- or even whether -- you could
justify this kind of expense, to your spouse, your comptroller, or the
credit-card company that has been stubborn about raising your limit. But you
stuck with us and with the game, which has the most passionate, loyal and
knowledgeable fan base (well, in most of our markets, at least) in all of
professional sports.

Actually, we understand that a lot of you aren't brokenhearted if we have an
extended stoppage, and a resumption of play in January, as happened in 1995.
That way, you get significant refunds, you don't have to watch teams
sleepwalking through a game on a Tuesday in November, and you get to watch a
season featuring a unique urgency -- and our real season, the playoffs.

It might go longer than that, though.

It might go longer because a minority of ownerships can scuttle any deal.
(Between us, a couple of them still think a unanimous NHL vote is 6-0.) We
have owners who don't want to play this season unless the players
association completely capitulates. Sitting out a full season would eat up a
year of existing contracts, and that doesn't sound bad to some ownerships.

Of course, despite our united front, we also have ownerships hoping to
play as soon as possible and want us to aggressively negotiate with that in
mind. There aren't enough of those to guarantee the success of, or even
allow for, genuine give-and-take negotiations. Not in the near future,
anyway. Of course, as the lockout continues, there will be financial
pressures and fissures in the players' ranks, as well. We're counting on
that.

Absolutely, some of this mess is our own fault. Nobody forced
certain teams to sign players to huge contracts that raised the benchmarks
and the bar for all, so even teams trying to mind their p's and q's and
budgets were affected as those contracts rippled through the system. And the
numbers kept getting higher and higher. In free-agent signings. In
arbitration. In re-signings of stars and rank-and-file players alike.

We won't insult you by saying that free spending buys championships
because over the past few years, it's been proven that teams in the middle
or even near the bottom of the payroll list can compete. The folly of just
throwing money around has been demonstrated. Yes, even some of our front
offices have noticed that and a market correction was under way.

But it's too late to simply let it happen.

We have to make sure it is guaranteed to happen through the terms of the new
CBA. A majority of our teams are losing money every season. We could debate
until we're blue in the face about whether 30 teams is too many, but it has
been proven that even teams in "non-traditional" markets can become hot
tickets if they win -- and, conversely, that teams in "traditional" markets
can have tons of empty seats when they lose.

But not everyone can win in a 30-team league. Owning a hockey team should
not be a license to print money, but it shouldn't be a virtually guaranteed
money-loser, either.

This also should be clear by now: As much as we love this sport, it isn't
ever going to be a hot television property in the United States. (Ignore the
rumor, by the way, that the owner of the franchise in a Windy City asked me
the following when this subject was broached: "Aw, television's just a
fad.") We hoped for those huge television deals in the U.S., but it isn't
happening -- witness the new contract with NBC, which is similar to the
revenue-sharing deal that was such a springboard for the XFL.

The NHLPA has to accept all of that. We're not asking them to save us from
ourselves, though many of our media critics want you to believe that.
It doesn't take a law degree to figure out that we're eventually going to
have some kind of system that creates a de facto salary cap with
punitive luxury tax provisions for exceeding specified payroll thresholds.
In this league, owners will treat that as a virtual cap, or if they don't,
the recent past has shown that they likely will be throwing their money away
rather than building a champion. But because of all the cross-currents among
both factions in this, it might be a long time before significant bargaining
on the terms of that settlement take place.

We're asking the NHLPA to accept reality and to help save the game. Because
it's not as if they're going to have to be standing at the bottom of freeway
ramps holding cardboard signs if their average salary drops to $1.3 million.

Please keep the faith.

Your pal,
Gary

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