Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bettman deserves kudos

Players will reap riches from commish's strategy

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When the captain of the Stanley Cup winning team is about to receive his reward from Gary Bettman this spring, he should take a moment to scrape before the commissioner and thank him for the riches he has bestowed upon the NHL's players.

Just a year ago, Bettman was vilified by union members in the midst of the third lockout he has overseen during his reign.

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"Usually, it's give me your money or I'm going to hurt you. Not give me your money and I'm going to hurt you," said Coyotes captain Shane Doan.

And Brandon Prust, now of the Montreal Canadiens, had this little pearl.

"Gary Bettman's autobiography is in stores now. It's titled 'How I destroyed a sport and a nation,'" read his tweet.

Blackhawks winger Kris Versteeg, meanwhile, called Bettman and his top lieutenant Bill Daly "cancers" that had been "looting this game for far too long."

Fortunately, the players can afford to have short memories. All their carping and push back at the strategy Bettman wanted to lay out for the NHL will not cost them in the long run.

As most predicted, the players will continue to get richer. Not as a result of their solidarity but in spite of it.

This week, Bettman predicted the salary cap will rise to $71 million for the 2014-15 season and already the rumblings are it could shoot as high as $80 million for the following campaign.

The upshot is there will soon be more and more $10 million per season players dotting NHL rosters. The league minimum will rise at some point so every player in the NHL earns a seven-figure salary.

The man players were so quick to say was ruining the game and robbing their bank accounts has mapped out a strategy where all 30 teams in the NHL can claim to be on the road to financial health.

Lost in the players' rhetoric last winter was the fact many were being paid by franchises that couldn't cover the cheques as stand alone businesses.

Bettman's job was to make sure all league members could operate as sound businesses.

That, and the largesse bestowed upon the game's players, will be his lasting legacy.

The new CBA, improved profit-sharing and national TV deals orchestrated by Bettman are on the verge of removing the NHL from the hand-to-mouth existence of all gate driven leagues.

Teams that qualify for a full portion of revenue sharing could collect as much as $45 million next season when national TV monies and escrow are tacked on.

With the floor of the salary cap expected to be around $52 million, those empty seats in Florida and Phoenix are suddenly far less ominous.

Bettman will soon make the players' lot in life even better by expanding the NHL to 32 teams and adding even more union jobs.

When the league fired their first offer at the players in the summer of 2012, the reaction from the union was one of revulsion. The opening bid was for a clawback of the players' share to 43 per cent. It was an obvious telegraphing of where the league wanted to get to and what was eventually agreed upon at 50-50.

Would Bettman have taken the larger share? Of course, but it was never attainable and was clearly a beginning to negotiations.

In Winnipeg, the steps Bettman has taken served to further entrench the Jets as a franchise with a long-term future. Jets co-owners Mark Chipman and David Thomson made a bet on the basis of the previous CBA. Certainly, they would have expected a friendlier labour deal when they bought the team in 2011 but they couldn't have foreseen the actual numbers in the revenue split, a less restrictive revenue sharing policy and a far sweeter piece of national TV rights.

The Jets are far better off as a business model today than when they entered the NHL and Bettman is largely responsible for this.

The NHL still has its issues and if Bettman can't get his head around a way to curb violence while promoting player safety and retaining much of the game's physicality, his watch could end in failure.

But betting against Bettman has proven foolish so far. To think he would let all his good work go for naught in order to protect the out-of-date thinking of some of his owners seems incongruent.

Bettman has fixed his league's financial house. Now he must underpin the foundation with a mix of safety and excitement. Then his legacy will be secure.

 

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 12, 2013 D3

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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