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SAVING THE NHL SEASON : THE NHL / HELENE ELLIOTT : A Suite Deal Finally Came Together : No Winners in a Long, Bloody War

The NHL season, such as it is, will begin late next week. It will be tainted not only by its brevity but by the blood spilled during the 3 1/2 months it took Commissioner Gary Bettman to make players pay for past excesses of the league’s owners and for players to come to their senses.

It wasn’t worth it. Nobody won.

Certainly, the fans lost. They missed half a season of Boston Garden’s final year before a new arena opens and will be deprived of seeing Paul Kariya of the Mighty Ducks and Peter Forsberg of the Quebec Nordiques push each other all season for rookie-of-the-year honors. Because all games will be played against conference opponents, fans in Los Angeles won’t see the New York Rangers visit for the first time as Stanley Cup champions. Wayne Gretzky won’t play in Philadelphia or Montreal. How many more times will he play there?

Given that players will have perhaps fewer than 10 days to get back into shape, the quality of play in the first few weeks is sure to be ugly. Not everyone played on Gretzky’s European tour or in other tournaments. Stars played, but third-line centers and fourth and fifth defensemen had to fend for themselves. Many haven’t skated much. There might be records set for hamstring and groin pulls, leading to record numbers of recalls from the minor leagues.

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That means fans will have the privilege of paying the same high prices they paid for a lockout-free season to see fewer games and inferior competition. Welcome back. And don’t forget to buy some souvenirs on your way out. But you probably can’t afford it because teams held your ticket money all this time.

Players lose too. In addition to losing paychecks, some have lost a chance to pursue league records. Others who are near the end of their careers lost precious time they’ll never regain. Plus, they’re going to be asked to play 48 games in 100 nights.

The league didn’t win, either, and Bettman might ultimately suffer for it.

He promised owners a salary cap or payroll tax, and he couldn’t deliver. As he has pointed out, the NHL is now the only major professional sports league that offers players unrestricted free agency and doesn’t balance that with a salary cap.

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The free agency doesn’t come until late--age 32 in the first three years of the agreement and 31 in the next three--but that might not be so bad. More expansion is certain within the next few years, creating more jobs. Players will be more likely to hang on longer, so more players might be able to capitalize on this newfound freedom.

Owners were not happy with the many concessions they had to make, and they haven’t been shy about admitting it. Bettman tried to appease them by inserting a clause in the deal allowing the NHL to press for better terms after the 1997-98 season if this agreement doesn’t curb salary growth. Ultimately, he had to give players the same right.

Bettman won few friends during the negotiations through his reliance on belligerent Boston General Manager Harry Sinden. He gave enormous weight to the needs of the Edmonton Oilers and other small-market clubs that have poor management records, perhaps to the detriment of the large-market members. He was only too happy to take expansion fees from Disney’s Mighty Ducks and Wayne (Blockbuster) Huizenga’s Florida Panthers, yet he never asked for the business expertise those clubs could have provided.

There may yet be a backlash against him that results in his ouster.

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The same is true of union chief Bob Goodenow. He promised his players they would never have to live with a rookie salary cap, but that was the first concession he made.

He followed that with significant concessions on salary arbitration that will affect a majority of the union’s membership. Clubs now, in essence, control players’ first 12 seasons in the league, through eliminating free agency for Group 1 players (those who have finished their first contract) and narrowing the scope of arbitration for Group 2 (mid-career) players. If he had agreed to a salary cap or tax months ago, he could have won his players free agency at age 28. Instead, he ignited an irrational and blind passion in them to avoid a tax at all costs.

They lost more to avoid a tax than they would have lost by accepting a moderate tax. If they had they taken a tax last summer, they would have started the season on time. They wouldn’t have missed training-camp meal money and regular-season paychecks they will never recover. The league could have continued to build on the enthusiasm it sparked last season among advertisers and fans. Its future would have sparkled.

Other than making a six-year agreement that will spare everyone a repeat of this for a while, only one good thing came out of this: They ultimately found a way to make a deal and start the season. If Bettman had canceled it, the NHL would never have recovered. As it is, it might never reach the peak it appeared on track to hit after last season.

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Hockey has always been tough enough to survive despite the people who run it. Of all the scurrilous characters who preceded Bettman and Goodenow, none came as close to killing it as they did. Neither should feel anything but sorrow today.


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