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NHL has no season, Bettman has no answers

| Thursday, Feb. 17, 2005

Gary Bettman managed to keep a straight face.

Mario Lemieux could not.

Bettman: "Even through bankruptcies, all of our players have been paid everything they've been owed."

Lemieux: "Except one."

Lemieux's remark incited laughter from an otherwise somber gathering of media at Mellon Arena, and even he couldn't resist a smile and a chuckle upon making it.

Bettman had issued his statement at what appeared to be an equally somber gathering of media in New York while officially canceling the NHL's season.

"Well, I'm glad I didn't get paid," Lemieux said. "I own this team (the Penguins) now, so I'm very happy."

And so it went Wednesday, a day upon which Lemieux established that he's better at damage control than Bettman but little else was resolved.

Bettman is better at inflicting damage.

The announcement that the league was keeping shut doors that have yet to open suggested Bettman's opposite number, NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow, is at least as adept at wreaking havoc and bringing a professional sports league to its knees.

For months, Goodenow insisted the players would never acquiesce to a salary cap; then, suddenly, they did (in response, Goodenow said, to the owners dropping "linkage" between player costs and revenues as a deal-breaker at the 11th hour).

Goodenow and the players are equally accountable.

But after listening to both sides of Bettman's mouth, is it any wonder Goodenow's players don't trust their employers?

The "all of our players have been paid" contradiction wasn't the only one Bettman expressed.

To paraphrase:

He said the mission all along was to achieve a system that worked, not save a season, and then he said the owners would have accepted a deal that might have cost them money for two years just to save the season.

He said there's nothing wrong with the game, and then he said the game would have returned with rules alterations designed to make it more "fun."

He said the fans are supporting the league's hard-line stance, and then he said the league would have to re-earn the fans' trust.

He said all 30 franchises would survive the potentially crippling effects of the lockout, and then he said it was impossible to quantify those potentially crippling effects.

He said a salary cap of $42.5 million was stretching things beyond the owners' comfort zone, and then he said the owners might have considered a $44 million or $45 million cap had the players association only called with such an offer.

Bettman espouses such rhetoric, and then wonders why the players won't examine management's books.

If you look closely while listening to Bettman, you can almost see his nose growing.

Oh, wait, that's Pinochio.

Easy mistake.

After all, both are small and have wooden heads (or so it seems).

Bettman also has his line in the sand.

And a league that's the first in the history of North America to shut down entirely because of labor strife.

The players emerge with their principles and without their jobs.

Hopefully, they'll get those back after the NHL re-opens in September with replacement players.

"We are truly sorry," Bettman said.

It might have been the only instance in which the commissioner was truly sincere.

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