Can Bettman be a hockey man?

Originally Published: September 30, 2004
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

Red McCombs' Texas twang crackled with decisiveness. The owner of the NFL's Minnesota Vikings also previously owned the NBA's San Antonio Spurs and Denver Nuggets, and worked with an NBA executive named Gary Bettman during the time when the "other" winter league was bleeding money and being routed at the box office by the NHL.

Gary Bettman
Not only does Gary Bettman work for the owners, he's the steward of the game.
"I would bet on Gary Bettman's judgment for what's best for the league," McCombs said. "I watched him in the NBA, at a critical time, when we were talking about a salary cap and the votes literally could have involved whether teams would continue to operate or go dark.

"I saw Gary work. I don't think his emotional interests or personal likes or dislikes enter into it. In our case, in the NBA, there was no question that our league would not have survived without a salary cap."

As an NBA executive working under David Stern, Bettman generally operated behind the scenes or under the radar. In the NHL, he is the first man ever empowered with the title of "commissioner." The upgrade from Clarence Campbell's and John Ziegler's title as "president" recognized the demise of the era in which the sport was run by silver-haired moguls who preferred to wear tuxedos to league functions and often threw up on them by the end of the night.

Bettman still is the owners' man. That's not denunciation, but reality.

The NFL's Paul Tagliabue, Stern and baseball's Bud Selig are owners' men, too, and until the pending sale of the Milwaukee Brewers is official, Selig's family is among the owners.

Great commissioners, though, are willing often to be something other than chief executive officers in crucial times. They set aside the ledgers, tell the bean counter to put away the abacus, and tell even owners that this is neither a democracy nor a traditional board of directors. This involves a sport, passion, history and a legacy.

And the commissioner is entrusted with more than overseeing the owners' interests. He also is the steward of the game.

And shouldn't that still be more the case in hockey and baseball than in football and basketball?

Or if we still believe that, are we incredibly na´ve?

Bart Giamatti, who had both an academician's affinity for baseball and a passion for preserving what he believed was its purity, was the last commissioner to embody the steward's concept, as the owners turned to one of their own.

Selig never will be able to shake his image as the man who oversaw a scrubbed World Series because of a scarring work stoppage. And he shouldn't be able to shake it, because it was inexcusable -- and one of those situations in which no rationalization works. Baseball often is over-intellectualized by a bunch of bow-tied geeks or writers who are more part of the system than its watchdogs, but for many of us, the loss of the World Series was the time when the pretense ended.

Or when the game ceased being the American Pastime.

Overseeing what will turn out to be the second extended work stoppage in his tenure, Gary Bettman must prove that he is about more than serving as a watchdog for the owners' financial interests. He must do what is right for the game, too.
Stern has nudged the NBA through work stoppages and generally remained unaffected, in part because all along it was only about whether players would have to sell one of their cars to pay for the insurance on the other seven, and the division of spoils. Tagliabue took office after the NFL's most recent work stoppages, including the unbelievably arrogant decision to use replacement players in 1987.

At some point, as we all reach for either-or simplification, as if we're pundits judging a presidential debate or spinmeisters, we will judge this work stoppage and negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement with a ridiculous question:

Who won?

Bettman or Goodenow? And by extension, the owners or players?

That's stupid. And if Bettman wants to be taken seriously as a steward of the game, he must act as if he knows it. (By the way, so should Goodenow.)

Overseeing what will turn out to be the second extended work stoppage in his tenure, Bettman must prove that he is about more than serving as a watchdog for the owners' financial interests.

He must do what is right for the game, too.

He must act as if he is capable of getting weepy, too, when watching that "pond hockey" video that led into the All-Star game telecast, or coming off as if he actually has read Ken Dryden's "The Game," or knows that his league is at the top of a chain that includes a 3-year-old unsteadily taking his first skate
-- with dad holding on.

In this case, it is going to involve telling some NHL owners -- who are not as united as the league wants us to believe, just as the players are not as united as the NHLPA wants us to believe -- to do what's right.

And what is right is not holding out and being among a minority that can scuttle a reasonable settlement that can get the NHL back on the ice this season.

Yes, one of the underlying foundations of the lockout is the fact that as a body, the NHL's owners and board of governors have told Bettman to be militant and single-minded in seeking a financial reorganization of the business. In that sense, he is following orders and he can claim that it is exactly what is good for the game.

But that's a general charge, and for all the posturing and fronts erected as Bettman and Bill Daly go about their business, it also is inevitable that the commissioner at some point will have to give orders. The orders will have go beyond the shut-up gag orders that have everyone from owners to arena workers fearful of opening their mouths and expressing opinions about the lockout.

In this game of staredown, it has become apparent that the biggest impediment to negotiation and settlement is that some owners -- enough, at least -- wouldn't vote to accept a settlement this week if the NHLPA walked in and put forth a proposal that looks a lot like the owners' demands.

It is a daunting challenge, of course, and Bettman's repeated refrain that he is watching out for fans who have either been priced out of arenas or wince when the invoices arrive is not disingenuous.

"We owe it to hockey's fans to achieve an economic system that will result in affordable ticket prices and stable, competitive franchises," Bettman said in announcing the lockout. "The very future of our game is at stake, and the NHL's owners are united, as never before -- determined to do everything humanly possible to bring hockey's economic system into the 21st century. We have no other choice."

He said more of the same Wednesday, when he appeared in an online forum with fans able to submit questions.

That's business, too, because stratospheric ticket prices eliminate the margin for error, meaning bad teams in not just the Carolinas and Florida, but also in traditionally passionate markets, play in front of thousands of empty seats.

Over the years, it's been clear that some of Bettman's critics have been unfair, especially in holding what he isn't against him. He isn't Canadian. He is neither a "hockey man" nor a good, old boy in the sport's networking. Many of the Bettman critics who deride everything that comes from his mouth or the commissioner's office now react automatically to the man, not the message. If he were a lawyer raised in Kamloops and had played the game since he was 5, and once served as team counsel for the Montreal Canadiens, he would get cut a lot more slack.

Now, after more than a decade in office, Bettman needs to demonstrate that the game has gotten into his blood, and not just into the print along the top of his paycheck -- which he is continuing to accept during the work stoppage.

A gag order, and fines for violating it, is not leadership. On Tuesday night, as he watched his other team, the Denver Nuggets, play an intrasquad scrimmage in front of about 10,000 fans in the Pepsi Center, Colorado Avalanche owner Stan Kroenke smiled and politely declined to answer any questions with the word "hockey" in them.

Leadership is not mandating silence, or providing an excuse to keep mouths shut, it is leading the way. It is nudging folks who pay his salary. It is saying that he knows what they told him to do, and he has kept all of that in mind, but reasonable accommodation is part of the equation as well.

The NFL's salary cap and guaranteed share of revenue isn't even worth bringing up as a basis of comparison, because the entire system is based on non-guaranteed contracts and huge television deals. Without a complete revolution, that isn't happening in hockey.

The NBA's salary cap is a joke because of all its loopholes, mid-level exceptions, offsetting salaries and the Portland Trail Blazers being both way above the salary cap and in need of retaining a bail bondsman.

Bettman must lead.

He must be more than the owners' hatchet man, a candidate for disposal or retirement after he does his dirty work.

He must become a hockey man.

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

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

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