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COMMENTARY : Hockey Players Know Who Lost the Fight

NEWSDAY

Before the lockout was resolved, they sat around in the morning, another morning without a season, and made themselves believe the ugliest hockey fight of all would come to an end.

Somewhere Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner, and Bob Goodenow, a stubborn lightweight who runs the players’ union, were involved in the last negotiating session they would have.

The Rangers, the shadow group of Rangers who keep showing up at the team’s practice rink in Rye, N.Y., told themselves the lockout would be over one night last week, or the next morning and the season would resume next week, which it will. The alternative was putting away skates and sticks for good. Attached to the sideboards on the Playland rink outside was this sign: “Skate at your own risk.”

Brian Leetch was asked how players on the low end of hockey’s pay scale have managed without a paycheck since last spring.

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“They go back to Canada and live at home and try to spend as little money as possible,” Leetch said. “And wait to see on television, or get the call, that says we can go back to work for real.”

“Way back when, they told us to prepare for a lockout, but I wasn’t even listening,” goalie Mike Richter said. “They told us it might be a long one, and I was like so many other guys: I never thought it would happen.”

By last Monday morning, it was a long one. The season was supposed to start in October and now it was January. When hockey players talked about a game Sunday, they talked about Cowboys vs. Packers or Dolphins vs. Chargers. Finally the Rangers in the locker room in Rye seemed to run out of conversation, if not hope.

Then one of them shouted out, “Why don’t we just admit what we all know? We got our butts kicked.” The player, whose name does no one any good, slammed a stick against the empty locker next to him and snapped the blade as if it were a toothpick.

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The lockout would end when Goodenow admitted to himself what was shouted out in the locker room in Rye. Half a season should never have been lost. The season should have started on time. There should have been a deal between the players and the owners in the summer. Goodenow should have agreed to a salary cap in August, before training camp began. But in return, he should have made Bettman pay a very heavy price.

Goodenow should have talked about real free agency in the NHL, at the age of 25 or 26, and gone from there, worked his way down to the best per diem allowance he could get. And you know what? Bettman would have had to go for it. Because Goodenow was giving him, giving the NHL owners, the salary cap they so desperately wanted.

Goodenow never really wanted to negotiate. He was out of his weight class and never seemed to have much of a plan, except to wait. Goodenow was so tough that he could just stare at the owners and make them go down. So he waited until the regular season was supposed to begin and offered to play the season without a new collective-bargaining agreement, perhaps thinking the cheers of the fans would carry the day. Bettman, of course, already had gone through last season without an agreement. Nothing for him there. He ordered a lockout, and by last Sunday, half the season was gone.

But in the end, Bettman has turned everything around on Goodenow. The salary cap is gone and the luxury tax on salaries is gone. Now it is Goodenow who has paid, with a list of concessions that is rather amazing. That the concessions were not quite enough for Bettman’s owners shows you how much they wanted the salary cap in the first place. They will still come away with a system in which no hockey player can become a free agent until he is 30, or 31, or 32. All because Goodenow got Bettman to drop a salary cap. Only no one is cheering Goodenow now.

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He was in over his head with Bettman from the start, whatever kind of spin he and his flacks put on all this. There has been the suggestion that Bettman is the loser here, however the dispute is finally resolved. It is the complete opposite of the truth, even if his militant owners do not end up with everything they want.

Bettman will never be a media favorite. Unlike so many other people with big jobs in sports, he does not hide under his desk because of something he sees in a headline, here or in Canada, or hears from shrill voices on the radio. But to suggest that Goodenow has somehow gotten the best of Gary Bettman is to ignore the facts. Goodenow looks like a general left standing when his whole platoon is gone.

Hockey players are the most pleasant of all professional athletes, the most human. “Most of us are small-town Canada,” Rangers Coach Colin Campbell said yesterday. “Maybe there’s something to be said for that.” Of all the athletes, they are the easiest to root for in any collective-bargaining dispute because salaries were held down in hockey for so long. Now the owners say salaries have escalated to the point where they are willing to shut the sport down, even for a whole season, to get some sort of control over them. Make up your own mind about that. I always root for the players.

Gary Bettman was hired to get a new collective-bargaining agreement of which his owners approved, and to get his sport a big deal from network television. He got that deal from Fox. But even television had to wait until Bettman got his deal. It seemed he was ready to get it last Sunday because everybody except Goodenow seemed to know Goodenow was through.

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Bettman’s opponents have wanted his status as a hockey outsider to matter here. It does not matter at all. I am told he treats some of the hard-liners among his owners very badly in the meetings. He gets away with it because he is smarter than most of them, and the league has more leadership right now--whatever happened last week--than it has ever had, whether you like him or not.

Sports owners can never be heroes in a fight like this. They are like the baseball owners, who are like the football owners. They want the running of a sports franchise to be risk-free. "(Baseball owners) want a system in which profit is guaranteed,” Tony Kubek, the great baseball broadcaster, always said. It is not the way the world works. Why were the NHL owners fighting for the last dollar in the proposal they made to the players last week? Because it is their nature. They don’t know any other way.

Goodenow can say he held the line on a salary cap and he held the line on a luxury tax. He can proclaim a bloody victory. Then the players will take a look at what he gave away. Hockey players always know who lost the fight.


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