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Kovacevic: Time to go, Mr. Commissioner

| Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, 10:56 p.m.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman gestures as he describes negotiations between the NHL and the NHL Players Association regarding the difficulties of their current labor negotiations on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012 in New York. The National Hockey League Players' Association (NHLPA) said the league rejected its latest offer on Thursday as labor talks aimed at ending the lockout unexpectedly broke off on Thursday. (Reuters)
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman gestures as he describes negotiations between the NHL and the NHL Players Association regarding the difficulties of their current labor negotiations on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012 in New York. The National Hockey League Players' Association (NHLPA) said the league rejected its latest offer on Thursday as labor talks aimed at ending the lockout unexpectedly broke off on Thursday. (Reuters)

NEW YORK — My question for Gary Bettman was, in comparison to the mega-mess just made of the NHL's labor talks Thursday night, a fairly simple one.

Here it is verbatim: "Gary, how could any commissioner justify canceling two full seasons in a span of eight years in any major professional sport?"

You had to be an elementary school principal to truly grasp the glare shot across the media room at the Westin Times Square.

"First of all," Bettman began, "lockouts and strikes happen in all sports. Baseball had eight work stoppages in a row before they had labor peace. The NBA and NFL have had them, too."

That's when he tilted his head a bit, always a sign he's about to get testy, his left eye twitched, his left handed pointed and trembled, and he added: "I'm not happy about this. But I've got to play the hand that I'm dealt."


Let's hit pause for a second.

This man had just presided over the complete collapse of three days of negotiating that involved all 30 franchise owners, 18 players and countless lawyers, amid make-or-break urgency.

This man had just watched all the owners who employ him bolt town in disgust all through the afternoon, including the Penguins' would-be cavalry of Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle he'd personally invited to seal the deal here

This man had just moved a step closer to shutting down his sport at a rate unprecedented in history.

And this man, entrusted with more power than anyone in the equation, feels it's just the hand he's been dealt.

Plain old lousy luck.

You know, I can't say what will become of this NHL season. It's never looked as dark as it did here Thursday night, but things can change with a single phone call, text or email. The part of me that's loved hockey all my life wants to believe it will be back.

But I do feel wholly certain of this much: If there is a hockey season of any length or breadth, it will be very much in spite of the men running the sport.

Check that: The man running it.

Let me put it another way: Bettman needs to go.

Not soon, but right now.

That's not to let Fehr off the hook. His reputation as a man solely interested in the advance of labor, even at the expense of the athletes he serves, was never more glaring than Thursday. The owners made a fair offer, and sentiment was nearly universal that a deal would be achieved before the weekend. Be very sure it was Fehr that pulled the plug.

At the same time, it's just impossible to get past that the man running the sport also has done a bang-up job of ruining it.

It's not something one writes cavalierly and, trust me, I'm not. If it weren't for Bettman, the league might never have been built into a $3.3 billion business, installed a salary cap, become vital in places like Tampa and Dallas, raised the Stanley Cup in Raleigh or Anaheim, brought Canadian markets back to health and the Jets back to Winnipeg, and taken on bold efforts such as Olympic participation and the Winter Classic.

Oh, and your Penguins would have skated off to Kansas City.

Give Bettman credit for that much. For the body of two decades, he's been a good commissioner.

But that's what makes this disastrous lockout — the third in his 19-year tenure, possibly the second to cost a full season — all the more damaging to his brand. He built all this up, only to tear it all down in one abysmal year.

Forget for a moment, if you can, the lockout's impact on Pittsburgh, where it's not only shut down a potentially great team but also costs the local economy $1.2 million per lost home game and many good folks in our region an honest paycheck.

Look, strictly from the NHL standpoint, at Los Angeles.

The Kings play in our nation's second-largest market, blessed with as much potential as any franchise to take hockey to the next level. The last time we saw the sport in action, Bettman was passing the Cup to team captain Dustin Brown, the team was applauded later that week by 50,000-plus at Dodger Stadium, then made the full-circuit of late-night TV.

And now, just like that, to far too many in that same public, the Kings are right back to being Arena Football.

Think about that. What an enormous lost opportunity.

Only Bettman was in position to avoid that and all the rest.

Yes, in theory, he does the owners' bidding. And yes, the owners had — and still have — legitimate concerns. But thanks to an edict pushed through in 2002 to grant himself far more power, the commissioner needs only eight teams' approval to take action — work stoppages included - well down from three-quarters.

Don't think Bettman could have found eight teams opposed to a lockout?

I'll start with Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, the $1 billion Maple Leafs, the Rangers who are headquartered a block away from these meetings but conspicuously weren't invited, and four more are easy.

Even once the lockout train got rolling, Bettman bungled step after step. Facing a union clearly open to concessions, his initial approach this summer was a we-want-it-all that galvanized the players around Fehr and killed any chance for a quick deal. Strike two came when Bettman assembled 5-6 hard-line owners - led by the Bruins' Jeremy Jacobs - to keep going ballistic and further bury the process.

And here these past couple days, Bettman was a shameful no-show. That started with keeping himself out of the most successful meeting Tuesday — along with Fehr — and continued Thursday when he stayed out in the hall while deputy commissioner Bill Daly and counsel Bob Batterman met with Fehr and the union.

How humiliating that must have been.

His excuse?

"It was a simple yes-or-no approach on our part," Bettman offered unsolicited, as if to fend it off. "We didn't feel the need to match lines, so to speak."

How pathetic.

It'll be 20 years for Bettman in February, and that's too long. No matter the outcome of all this, it's time for change.

The owners should immediately consider John Collins, the league's sharp, young chief operating officer who came from the NFL and conceived the Winter Classic, struck the 10-year deal with NBC and softened the league's touch with social media and young fans. Word is, Collins is so upset with the lockout and what's become of his achievements that he's considering leaving the league.

Here's another chance for Bettman to be proactive. One can only hope, for the sake of all of us who love this magnificent game, that he doesn't blow this one, too.

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