Bettman Rules: Instead Of The Winter Classic, A Self-Destructive Lockout

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By JOE LAPOINTE

What if Gary Bettman had scored an early knockout in his latest labor lockout? From high atop Michigan Stadium Tuesday, he would smile down upon the teeming throngs beneath his climate-controlled luxury box.

The National Hockey League Commissioner might bond with suitemates like Governor Rick Snyder, whose “right-to-work” sucker-punch recently rocked Michigan unions.

Both leaders could toast the New Year while watching the Red Wings host the Toronto Maple Leafs on a famous football field before 100,000 fans and an international television audience.

It was to be the “Winter Classic,” an innovative and refreshing promotional carnival that moves, year to year, from town to town.

Winter Classic Logo

And this would be the best yet, a long, tourist-filled holiday weekend of hockey even on the baseball field at Comerica Park, a cavalcade of games showcasing local teams from college, Junior A and minor pro. For nostalgia: Old-Timers representing two of the league’s core franchises.

Instead, Bettman may meet Monday with other negotiators to try to end the third lockout of his reign, which reaches its 20th. anniversary on Feb. 1.

Another full-season cancelation would be Bettman’s second in eight years. Even if Bettman does not push his league off its fiscal cliff again, his confrontational style has worn out its welcome over two decades.

Until now, Bettman has seemed secure, for some good reasons.

Under him, league revenues have grown from about $400 million to about $3.2 billion. The league grew from 24 teams to 30. Franchise values are up 18 per cent from last year, according to Forbes.

But no other commissioner in any other major-league sport conducts his labor-relations business by taking his ball (in this case, his puck) and going home so often if he doesn’t get his way.

His newest adversary, Donald Fehr, might let him. When Fehr led the Major League Baseball Players Association, his union struck to cancel the playoffs and World Series of 1994, just as Bettman launched his first hockey lockout.

Bettman sacrificed almost half that season and also major media and marketing momentum after a Stanley Cup championship for the New York Rangers.

Bettman’s second lockout -- which killed the entire 2004-05 season -- was declared a terrific victory for Bettman, who got most of what he demanded. It caused the ouster of Bob Goodenow as executive director of the union.

Bettman’s third lockout, which began Sept. 15, has ruined the media momentum that would have followed a Stanley Cup championship team in Los Angeles for the Kings. At the very least, the man is a buzz-killer.

This time, he isn’t even insisting that his league, as a whole, is losing money, only that not enough mediocre franchises are not getting enough of it so, therefore, players should take a pay cut.

In September, Wings’ executive Jim Devellano told Island Sports News in Canada:

“The owners can basically be viewed as the ranch, and the players, and me included, are the cattle. The owners own the ranch and allow the players to eat there . .. . the owners aren’t going to let a union push them around.”

The league fined Devellano $250,000. Another Wings’ leader seemed to fret recently about hockey’s major-league visibility when Coach Mike Babcock told Sportsnet.ca “Hate to say it, but we could end up like bowling.”

This after a recent jump in TV visibility under the prestigious “NBC Sports” brand. But TV offers so many alternatives. On Christmas Day, we got five NBA games, one after the other. The next day -- Boxing Day --English soccer was presented the same way.

Now come the college football bowls and the NFL playoffs and March Madness and then baseball’s back and – hey! -- do you think the NHL lockout might also jeopardize the “Winter Classic” in Michigan even in 2014?

Goodenow used to say a shutdown of a season and a half was needed to beat Bettman and the owners. Twenty years ago, when I covered Bettman’s first day at work, I wrote:

“Bettman’s mission is simple: Put a stop to labor unrest; sell the product in television’s mainstream marketplace; change the violent image of the game; curb salary inflation; force enlightened self-interest on reluctant, old-fashioned owners; expand contacts with European developmental leagues and markets; settle the divisive issue of possible Olympic involvement; and help launch several new expansion teams.”

Since then, Bettman has seen much success but his cold and hard handling of labor relations has come across as self-destructive, the most poisonous part of his style, a stain on the image of his sport.

Perhaps after Bettman settles yet another spiteful fight, the owners who pay him so well should give him a testimonial dinner, put a gold watch on his wrist, thank him for all the hard work and wish him luck in his next challenge.

Native Detroiter Joe Lapointe is a New Jersey-based freelance writer who graduated from Wayne State University and covered hockey and other sports for the Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and New York Times.

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