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COMMENTARY : Bettman Has Much Work Ahead in Fighting the NHL’s Problems

NEWSDAY

When Gary Bettman took over as National Hockey League commissioner Feb. 1, he promised to improve relations with the fans, media and current and former players. Progress has been slow, but Bettman says 11 months is not enough time to affect major changes.

The best that can be said for his first year is that the league continued its push into the Sun Belt by expanding to Miami and Anaheim, Calif., and allowing the North Stars to move from Minnesota to Dallas. Parity reigns. The on-ice product remains exciting.

“I agree with you,” NHL Players’ Association executive director Bob Goodenow said. “The highlight has been successful expansion.” But the league remains beset by problems:

--Its adversary relationship with current and former players has not improved. Bettman’s talk of a partnership has been just talk. “It’s one thing to call something a partnership,” Goodenow said, “another to make it happen.”

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Bettman appears not to have learned from the players’ strike of April 1-10, 1992. The NHLPA’s collective bargaining agreement expired Sept. 15. No serious negotiations took place over the summer. None during the season.

Why? He placed a higher priority on talks with the Officials’ Association, which also proceeded slowly and led to a 17-day walkout by referees and linesmen. Replacements were used, and some games became farces before a new four-year agreement was reached.

Bettman said he had to deal with the officials first because of their Nov. 15 strike deadline. “The players never indicated an intention of going out,” he said.

(A source said the reason players’ CBA talks have languished is because the NHL is preparing a report for the union with details of teams’ profits and losses in 1992-93. The report will be ready next month, the source said, and serious talks will begin then.)

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Meanwhile, the NHLPA sued Bettman over his voiding of a free-agent offer by the San Jose Sharks to the Edmonton Oilers’ Craig Simpson and his modification of their offer to the Washington Capitals’ Kelly Miller.

“The offer to Simpson put all the money in a reporting bonus to circumvent compensation rules,” Bettman said, “and the no-trade clauses in Miller’s offer made it difficult for Washington to match. That offer sheet stood. We just deleted the no-trade provisions.”

In an unrelated matter, the NHL sued the union, seeking a declaration on clubs’ rights to sell jerseys with players’ names on them without paying a fee to the union.

“The players had sent out 500 letters to retailers and licensees threatening to sue them,” Bettman said. “We said, ‘Your dispute is with us; why don’t we sign a stand-still agreement.’ They said no. We said, ‘You’re giving us no choice but to sue.’ ”

Are we headed for another strike? “I certainly hope not,” Bettman said. “I don’t think we should be. People in negotiations don’t always agree on everything. I’m going to do my darndest to avoid (it). I’m committed to forging a partnership that will enable the league to grow. I’ve been in (National Basketball Association) negotiations where we went at least a year without a CBA. It’s not unusual.”

Bettman appealed an Ontario judge’s ruling that the NHL wrongfully diverted more than $25 million in surplus pension funds in 1982 and 1985. The eventual award with interest to retired players could be $40 million. Why appeal?

“I brought in new lawyers to look at it,” he said, “and they said the appeal was meritorious.” Did he think lawyers would tell him otherwise?

“It was impossible to settle,” Bettman said, “short of writing a check for the full amount.” So ill will continues between the NHL and some of its greatest stars, including Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull.

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--Injuries to Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman, Pat LaFontaine, Eric Lindros and Phil Housley have contributed to a drop in scoring to its lowest pace since 1977-78, resulting in a decline in ESPN ratings. One cannot blame Bettman but sources say he also is having trouble getting owners to relinquish local television rights in exchange for the national network deal he wants.

“That is a little premature,” he said. “I haven’t yet asked for any rights to be given back that we can exploit nationally. We’ve just started talking about it. And as far as the ratings, look at the later games and they seem to be going up.”

Bettman said (and I agree) that games are better-televised because of NHL-provided commercial coordinators who handle the four 70-second breaks in a period.

--Partly due to the officials’ strike and also due to a new conference playoff format, fighting majors and suspensions for on-ice violence are up over last year. But fighting was not on the agenda at the recent Board of Governors meetings and Bettman said it “is not a front-burner issue.”

“I don’t think you can say one-third of the way through a season, let’s make changes,” he said. “Let’s see how things are after the year is over.”

--The NHLPA is upset with NHL senior vice president Brian Burke’s discipline system under which players forfeit game checks as well as pay for days between games. “The penalties are a function of the schedule,” Goodenow said.

Bettman said, “Burke has been aggressive in terms of ... discipline. We’ll see if it results in a downturn (in suspensions eventually). We’ve discussed the system with Bob. We’re proposing a number of alternatives.”

--Bettman has been visible and available and his public relations staff, coordinated by Arthur Pincus in New York and Gary Meagher in Toronto, is much-improved. But the NHL still is not marketing its stars effectively.

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“We’re putting an organization in place that will enable us to run the league the way it needs to be run in the 1990s,” Bettman said. “We’ve started a newsletter (mailed to reporters). We’ve improved our fax communications system. We’ve made preliminary steps with regard to marketing and promotions. I’ve hired (new department heads). You have to make sure the building blocks are there. The first NBA heavy marketing didn’t take place until David Stern had been there five or six years.”

--The New York Islanders, Hartford Whalers and Oilers are not drawing well. The Oilers are being courted by the Target Center in Minneapolis. The Whalers are believed considering a move. “The good news,” Bettman said, “is that 23 other franchises are doing pretty well.”


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