Bettman: 'You can consider this final'

Updated: February 16, 2005, 6:32 PM ET
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Two hundred and eighty-seven steps from Times Square and around the corner from the stages of "The Producers" and "Phantom of the Opera," the ballroom of a contemporary midtown hotel was transformed into a morgue Wednesday afternoon with the stone-faced arrival of one man.

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And now, live from New York, the Grinch who stole the NHL season: Gary Bettman.

Wearing a navy blue suit and a light blue tie, his hair neatly parted, his face as serious as unemployment, Bettman looked the part of Wall Street businessman but played the role of undertaker. He walked into the ballroom of the Westin Hotel and did what no other commissioner in the history of North American professional sports had done before.

He canceled an entire season.

"It is my sad duty to announce that because a solution has not yet been attained, it is no longer practical to conduct even an abbreviated season," Bettman said. "Accordingly, I have no choice but to announce the formal cancellation of play."

Baseball's 1994 strike canceled the World Series, and the NFL's 1987 strike forced the use of replacement players. But never before Wednesday had an entire season been canceled.

The reverberations of the announcement could be felt across North America. From the owners and players all the way down to the janitors, beer vendors and parking lot attendants. From the sportswriters and P.R. people to the 9-year-old fan wondering when he'll be able to attend his next NHL game.

They've all been living in limbo since September, watching chunks of the season drop off the schedule without knowing for sure whether 2004-05 would be wiped from the record books entirely. Now they know. In the end, a salary-cap discrepancy of $6.5 million was too large to overcome.

In a way, it was almost ironic that it was in this city, the home of the handshake, the place where Wall Street is an actual road, where million-dollar deals are agreed upon as easily as where to eat lunch, and where Donald Trump has made his millions -- not to mention his television show -- that Bettman drove the final nail through the NHL's coffin.

Welcome to the boardroom, NHL, you're fired.

"You want to know how I feel? I can summarize it in one word," Bettman said. "Terrible."

Nobody believed it would actually come to this. Up until five minutes before the 1 p.m. ET decree, several media members were buzzing about the possibility that the news conference was going to be postponed and a deal would get done. Perhaps they were in denial. Perhaps they were overloaded with optimism. Perhaps they knew more than everybody else.

Bettman himself admitted that he had two news conferences prepared for today -- one to announce the season had been saved and one to announce its death. But there was no communication with the union Wednesday morning. After his $42.5 million cap offer was rejected Tuesday night, Bettman waited until 1 p.m. ET Wednesday to see whether anything was going to change. It didn't, so he went with news conference No. 2.

Even then, some couldn't believe it. One reporter asked Bettman whether, if the union came with a last-minute offer later this afternoon, could the season be saved? Or was this really the end?

"Look," Bettman said, "Would I suffer the embarrassment of another press conference in four hours to save the season? You betcha. But that isn't going to happen. So you can consider this final."

Bettman spoke for exactly 61 minutes. He began reading his prepared statement at precisely 1 p.m. and finished his final comments just as the clock hit 2:01. Standing in front of 18 television cameras and roughly 125 people, he used such fan-friendly terms as linkage, cost certainty, revenue sharing and salary cap.

No matter the question, Bettman did his best to return to his main points of emphasis -- that the owners are doing this for the long-term well-being of the league; that when the league returns, it will be better than ever; and that it won't be easy, but the fans will return.

And, as in any good news conference shrouded in labor discord, Bettman took shots at the opposition.

"I still don't understand their game plan," he said.

"I hope for their sake they think it was worth it, because I don't see it," Bettman said.

But in the end, it was Bettman's decision. He's the one with the keys. He's the one who decided the league couldn't go on as is. It shouldn't go on. He refused to make an agreement just to save the season when, in his view, the long-term ramifications wouldn't solve the financial problems the work stoppage was based on in the first place.

So now what? Everybody takes a step backward. Bettman said the final offer is off the table, citing the economic uncertainty of the post-lockout league. He'll again insist on linking players' salaries to revenues. And you can believe his final offer of a $42.5 million cap will disappear, as well.

But there's no sign that the two sides will get together anytime soon, with Bettman saying the league and its owners need a couple of weeks to "regroup."

"We need to get back to the table," he said, "but I can't tell you when."

And what about the fans? Bettman apologized to them. Several times. Said that they deserve better, but insisted that NHL polling shows that they support the league's cause and that they will return in full force once a new agreement is reached.

Will they?

Outside the Westin, just before Bettman's news conference, two middle-aged women walked down Eighth Avenue and wondered what all the commotion was. The television trucks, the cameras, the never-ending line of Lincolns. When told there was an NHL news conference, one woman said: "Are they still gonna strike? That's no great loss."

Down a block in Times Square, on the Dow Jones ticker that wraps the day's biggest headlines around an entire city block, the NHL's news wasn't even mentioned. There was information about the weather, the Knicks, the Nets, the Gates Foundation donating money to New York schools, an Italian journalist being held hostage by Iraqi captives. But nothing about the lockout.

Yet perhaps three hotel workers summed up the day best. Standing one floor above the news conference, looking down on Bettman as he rode the escalator back to his meeting room, one man pointed out the NHL commissioner and said to his buddies: "No hockey. No hockey. That's him."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Wayne.Drehs@espn3.com.