Collier: Time for Fehr, Bettman to go

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This is the day NHL owners are scheduled to ratify the new labor deal, with players expected to sign-off by the weekend, and though both processes are generally considered formalities ...

Well ...

No, don't be alarmed; it's just that veteran puckologists know too well this is a league where formality and rampant informality are separated by thin ice.

Tuesday's Penguins function, for example, was officially labeled an "informal skate," I guess because a formal one would have included flowers, champagne, wrist corsages, perhaps even tuxedos were they not considered mockery by actual Penguins.

But, when it comes to full procedural formality, you can be sure that all kinds of up-tempo NHL meetings are in progress from one end of North America to the other, many of them brainstorming the question of how to mollify the hockey audience that has had nearly half its beloved winter spectacle sacrificed to an insane monthslong game of top tax bracket chicken.

I'm no expert, but I'm pretty sure that nothing would radiate absolute contrition right now like a signal by the league that the services of commissioner Gary Bettman are no longer required, just as nothing would recalibrate support for the players so definitively as a concurrent pink slip from the players union for executive director Don Fehr.

Coincidental majors, if you will.

The commingling of egos suggested by a Bettman-Fehr collective bargaining matchup was a predetermined disaster, not that either lawyer couldn't have delivered a full-blown sports calamity by himself.

Fehr was present for the dawn of baseball free agency, assisting the brilliant Marvin Miller with the player revolution of the mid-70s.

Hired by Miller as the union's general counsel in 1977, Fehr eventually took control of the union and went on to sculpt a hot career batting average of .750. It was the hockey players who gave him the opportunity to become American's first two-sport stopper. Counting baseball and hockey, he's 6 for 8 in helping assure that the labor contract he's hammering out includes a near-ruinous work stoppage. Way to go.

The two-word answer to "Why was there no 1994 World Series" is Don Fehr, and, even though words three and four are Bud and Selig, it was the sheer weight of Fehr's arguments more than Bud's that led both men to the conclusion that splitting revenues in what was then about a $2.5 billion industry was a vexation that must include swiping from the fans nothing less precious than the Fall Classic itself, not to mention every game after Aug. 12.

As it happens, Bettman had a chance to be a two-sport stopper as well, but his ascendance as a former NBA counsel was incomplete when NHL governors made him their new commissioner in 1993. Since then, writes Sarah Jaffe at CapitalNewYork.com, "a full 10 percent of games under Gary Bettman have been canceled -- more than three times as many games as have been canceled in any other league, under any other sports commissioner."

It's not terribly difficult to make the case that the league is generally in a better place than it was before Bettman, but with that you've got to accept dubious propositions like Raleigh is a better place for hockey than Hartford, that Denver is better than Quebec, that Phoenix (Phoenix?) was better than Winnipeg.

Once you accept all that, you need only be comforted with the fact that the NHL is a $3.3 billion industry looking at 8 to 10 years of labor peace, which is fine if that weren't a small fraction of what it would have been under someone with a lot more foresight and a lot less venom. Had Comcast not done Bettman the favor of purchasing NBC, his hockey league would still be seen mostly on The Wood Choppers Channel.

This was Bettman's third lockout, the second of which swallowed an entire season. In terms of diplomatic missteps, Lockout III was surely the goriest. The low point was Bettman's comment that the previous CBA was "more fair [to the players] than it should have been."

Too fair?

There's no too fair.

If that were just oxymoronic, it would still be moronic. It was damaging to a process that would stretch 113 days. But no one in Pittsburgh was surprised that the commissioner would be susceptible to hysterics. When the long-awaited casino decision came down on what looked to some like the wrong number for the Penguins in 2006, Bettman yipped: "The decision by the Gaming Commission was terrible news for the Penguins, their fans, and the NHL. The future of this franchise in Pittsburgh is uncertain, and the Penguins now will have to explore all other options, including possible relocation. The NHL will support the Penguins in their endeavors."

Really.

As I wrote at the time, put the gun down, Gary.

Now it's time for the league and the players to disarm as well.

Do you really, sincerely want to let the hard-working, high-paying fans know you still care about them after having spent 16 disgusting weeks figuring out how to divide $3.3 billion equitably among yourselves?

Tell 'em you're sorry, and tell 'em Gary and Don aren't running this show anymore.

mobilehome - genecollier

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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