NHL fate in Bettman's hands, wallet

What would it take to make a deal?

It's a question asked millions of times a day as NHL fans suffer through another lockout.

Unfortunately, it misses the point because a deal is already on the table, waiting to be approved by the owners.

The reason there's no agreement yet is that Gary Bettman has made promises he can't keep. And if he doesn't keep them and loses half an NHL season — or more — in the process, he will be out of a job that pays him $8 million a year.

That's why there's been little negotiation from the NHL. That's why there's no hockey. And that's why there won't be hockey until the owners order Bettman to sit down and negotiate, or a union decertification forces the league to bargain instead of bleed.

See, Bettman promised seven or eight owners that he could get another lopsided deal. If he doesn't get it after losing a billion dollars in league revenue, he's probably out of a job.

So Bettman is holding up the game to save himself, and one imagines he's still convincing a small group of men that he can squeeze more from the players. That small group of owners, in turn, is keeping the arenas silent.

When Bettman danced in celebration seven years ago, jubilant in the face of a lost season and a 24-percent salary rollback, he was facing an empty suit across the table. Without understanding the players had Don Fehr this time, he told the owners a lockout would get them all they wanted again.

It has not happened. The players have come more than halfway, while Bettman is still talking about offers that went stale months ago.

Many fans don't have a side in this fight. They want their hockey and wish a pox upon both houses, which they view as greedy and unreasonable.

What they should understand is Gary Bettman did this. Gary Bettman and a few owners — who want more for them and less for the players — did this to hockey. It's their team, their house and their game. They have the puck and until they drop it, there's no NHL.

But their only current strategy is to blame Don Fehr for holding hockey hostage, and when they say it enough times, people begin to believe it.

Having covered many work stoppages in baseball, I can assure you that Fehr doesn't dictate union policy.

He hands his players all the information and an honest assessment of what they can expect. He offers them strategies, gives them options and lets them pick the course.

Fehr does not give orders. He takes them. The players, having given a lot, have asked the owners to finally move. They have not, so the players sit and wait for Bettman, who does not budge.

So Fehr continually asks union leadership what it wants to do. Give less? Give more? Give in? What do you want to do?

The players have decided that going more than halfway is more than fair, especially considering some of the men on the other side of the table.

Owners spent hundreds of millions signing players in the days leading up to the lockout, but the moment the work stoppage was official, those same owners signing their names said the agreements weren't worth the paper they were printed on, and that they couldn't afford those deals.

This literally occurred the weekend of the lockout. And Bettman has the nerve to talk about good faith?

No, this has little to do with Don Fehr, and it matters because Bettman is more concerned with the state of public opinion and slanting media coverage than getting back to the table.

When he starts blaming Fehr and claiming the union boss doesn't speak for the players who want to make a deal, it's probably a sign we're near the end.

When top aide Bill Daly says decertification would mean the end of the season, it's a sign we're near the end.

When the NHL is swinging at shadows, it's a sign we're near the end.

Whether it's the end of the process — federal mediation announced Monday guarantees nothing — or the end of the season, is up to the owners.

They are using scare tactics in a swipe of desperation. The NHL wants the players to know that they are willing to wipe out another season and that the players must come crawling back — begging for their jobs, hat in hand — just as they did seven years ago.

That doesn't seem likely, so the question of whether there will be an NHL season in any form rests with Gary Bettman.

Can he separate his own interests — his $8 million salary — from those of the game?

If he can't, and the owners don't force him back to the table, there will be no hockey and Bettman will fall back on blaming Fehr.

Sadly, that will be the only NHL game in town.

ŸHear Barry Rozner on WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.

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