Opposite Ends of the Ice : Bettman Says New Structure Needed in NHL

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"What we are trying to do is bring our broadcasting arrangement into the 20th Century, although it's almost the 21st."

--NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, announcing a five-year, $155-million television contract with Fox.

Delete the words our broadcasting arrangement and substitute the NHL , and it perfectly sums up Bettman's mission.

A lawyer who became the NBA's general counsel and third-in-command, Bettman, 42, developed a hard-driving, business-oriented philosophy based on the example of his boss, Commissioner David Stern.

Through force of will and more than a little arm-twisting, this New Yorker, who admittedly was not "a hockey guy" when he was hired, has done more in 20 months to buff the NHL's image than his predecessors did in 20 years.

Since taking office on Feb. 1, 1993, Bettman has overseen expansion, realignment, a revision of the playoff system and a rebuilding of the NHL's marketing operations. He enhanced the league's integrity by delegating disciplinary matters to Brian Burke, a former player and general manager.

He also defused an alleged game-throwing scandal involving the Ottawa Senators, using that as a springboard to adopt an NBA-style draft lottery.

Bettman made sure games went on without interruption last season when on-ice officials staged a 17-day strike. He won four years' labor peace and greater control over the quality of their performances while conceding no more than he offered before they walked out.

Recently, Bettman settled a long-simmering dispute with the International Ice Hockey Federation over compensating clubs whose players leave for the NHL and cleared the way for NHL players to participate in the 1998 Olympics.

From Stern, whom he called the most important professional influence in his life, he learned the value of marketing and merchandising and of selling the league around personalities. He sold Nike and Anheuser-Busch on the vitality of the NHL and having them as major advertisers in turn sold Fox on the league's future.

"I'm impressed with him," said Craig Patrick, Pittsburgh Penguin general manager. "He's real concerned about the economics of our business. He's a businessman, and the way things are right now, we need to improve the business conditions for the long term."

That focus on the business end of the game has thrust Bettman into the most difficult and emotional confrontation of his tenure.

A week ago, after prolonged negotiations failed to produce a collective bargaining agreement with the NHL Players Assn., Bettman announced he will delay Saturday's season openers unless a deal is reached. Labor unrest has marred a season only once before: Players struck for 10 days before the 1992 playoffs, but postponed games were made up.

A similarly swift resolution this time appears unlikely. Intensive talks over the last two weeks have produced no accords, and barring a dramatic turn in the next day, NHL arenas will be silent Saturday.

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Bettman was willing to go through last season without a contract because he was still new to the job and had other fires to put out first, such as the officials' contract and expanding the league's television exposure.

Now he is concentrating on the NHL's economic foundation.

"The future of this league depends on a new collective bargaining agreement," he said.

His insistence on a deal that involves a salary-revenue link also comes from the NBA, whose owners adored a system that reduced costs and made expenditures more predictable. He also found such a system appeals to owners of prospective expansion franchises because it gives them an idea of what the financial risks are as well as a sense of control.

And don't underestimate the expansion factor in the NHL's scenario. There's a line of wanna-be owners waiting for a settlement--and a promise of no union problems--so they can pay entry fees upward of $50 million.

In the plan supported by Bettman, salaries would be a negotiated percentage of clubs' revenues. Clubs that exceed the limit would pay a levy, which would be disbursed to small-market clubs. Bettman also would set minimum payrolls, which he contends would make teams more competitive.

The NHL Players Assn., led by Bob Goodenow, claims that plan would inhibit owners' spending because the levy would drive up the cost of signing players. It proposed a 5% levy on clubs' gate receipts and distribution of those pooled funds to small-market clubs.

Bettman, who helped implement the NBA's salary cap during a tense period when several franchises were near collapse, won't call his plan a salary cap. He has used the term "next generation system."

Whatever he calls it, it's clear that of all the issues being discussed, he is least flexible on this.

"He's a determined, aggressive and even abrasive negotiator," said Don Meehan, who represented the NHL Officials Assn. in bargaining with the league a year ago. "We had some difficult moments. There was name-calling. We threw rocks. He tested our determination, will and conviction."

Charles Grantham, executive director of the National Basketball Players Assn. and another former negotiating adversary, predicted this stalemate two years ago.

"Bob Goodenow is going to have his work cut out for him with Gary," Grantham said in December of 1992. "Gary is a doer. He understands the concept of vision and setting goals and how you get there. . . . He's straightforward. He's hard-nosed. He has a lot of tenacity and he is quite thorough."

To Bettman, thoroughness is essential to the job.

"We've done our homework and we're approaching things in a practical, sensible way, looking at the long term," Bettman said. "What we've tried to do all along is put a professional, hard-working organization in place that could execute the various elements that must be in place to run a professional sports league. A deal (with the players) is one of those elements. . . .

"The Fox deal isn't the end, it's the beginning for us. We are going to be an attractive house. What we're doing is ensuring the house doesn't fall down. Unless you have a strong enough house, you're not going to have competitive teams, and that means you won't have ratings. An illusory, short-term (labor) fix is not going to serve us any good."

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When he took office, Bettman declared his objective was to be a protector of the game. Although his way of protecting it might result in postponing the start of the season, he has the full support of owners, who hired him for five years at about $1 million per year.

He has won the support of the NHL's old-line, cigar-smoking, back-room dealers as well as its younger, progressive figures with his instinct for when to flatter and when to be blunt. His ability to talk bottom-line has won the allegiance of the league's heaviest financial hitters, the Walt Disney Co.'s Mighty Ducks and Wayne (Blockbuster) Huizenga's Florida Panthers.

He is concerned about the NHL's small-market clubs--"So much of the league's cultural heritage is in Canada and in those cities," he said--but he isn't governed solely by them. And while he isn't hesitant to consult Boston General Manager Harry Sinden or Panther President Bill Torrey for hockey advice, he resists being railroaded by them or the NHL's other established power brokers.

They have bought his assertion that only if labor peace is assured will more advertisers pump money into the league and will more people watch games on ESPN and Fox, which will lead to additional expansion, advertising and merchandising money.

Besides, by waiting until the start of the season to lock players out, he made sure owners got gate receipts from exhibition games without having to issue paychecks, which players don't draw until the season begins. Owners wouldn't have to pay players during a lockout, either.

"We're very satisfied so far," said one executive who requested anonymity. "But the bottom line is the result. If we end up with a good result, fine. . . .

"Why force the issue now? Look at baseball (and its season-ending strike). We don't want anything like that. It's a matter of who has leverage when, and we have it now. I think Gary's got a good plan."

Said Patrick: "What he did emphasized that there is a deadline, and when there's a deadline, things happen. We all find it that way with the trading deadline. We talk for a month and nothing happens. Then, the deadline is on top of us and we do things."

Players, however, think Bettman mainly intends to break their union. They discount his claim he acted to preserve the NHL's integrity and avoid a repeat of baseball's strike-shortened season. They say he is putting his personal stamp on the league. Why else would he halt play after a successful 1993-94 season that left fans hungry for hockey?

The day after Bettman's postponement warning, fans lined up outside The Pond in Anaheim and snapped up 22,000 single-game tickets in a few hours. Why risk losing those fans--and squander a chance to win a new audience among unhappy baseball fans?

"He shouldn't compare hockey to baseball. If he is, he's sadly mistaken," said Dave Gagner, the Dallas Stars' player representative. "Baseball has deeper roots and the fans are going to be there. If he thinks hockey fans are going to come back, he's nuts. I honestly believe Gary Bettman has an agenda he has to force on us."

Said King defenseman Marty McSorley, a member of the NHLPA's negotiating committee: "Did he have to (threaten a delay)? I believe he wants to. It's just not good for the game. . . . I don't believe there's a commitment by the ownership group to start the season Oct. 1. I don't think they want to. They believe we're going to be in a position of weakness and give in after we miss a paycheck."

Which is, of course, a tenet of negotiating. Seek your opponent's weakness and hammer away at it.

"He's going to be very difficult in these negotiations, as he was in the negotiations we had with him," Meehan said. "But at the end of the day we were very happy and I think they were too."

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No one is happy now. Players are still bristling over Bettman's decrees before training camp, ranging from the minor (taking away training camp meal money) to the major (cutting game rosters) to the annoying (rescinding the limit practices can last).

Harsh though his move seemed, it kick-started the talks. And it gave him the chance to appear generous when he promised to restore rescinded benefits if a deal is made that can save the start of the season.

Still, Bettman doesn't see himself as a hard-line negotiator.

"I'm a deal maker," he said. "But when somebody doesn't want to make a deal, you've got to use all the resources that are available to you. My preference is to go quietly into a room and work things out. But that's not happening.

"You're as tough as you have to be. And Bob Goodenow isn't a pussycat."

Goodenow has been as tough as Bettman. After hearing some players say they would accept a rookie salary cap in exchange for quicker free agency or the restoration of arbitration, he rallied players back into line. He won't yield on any form of salary restrictions.

Two stubborn men, one season in jeopardy.

"It's unfortunate if the season gets derailed," Goodenow said.

Bettman will be remembered as the man who derailed it. But he will accept being vilified if it ultimately brings the NHL closer to his vision of a secure financial future.

"This is reallocation (of wealth). This isn't punishment," he said. "Players and fans benefit from a healthier league. . . . We--that's the league and teams and owners--know there's no choice but to come out of these negotiations with the principles we've articulated."

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