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Silverman: What Is Wrong With Gary Bettman?

Gary Bettman

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

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By Steve Silverman
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NEW YORK, N.Y. (WFAN) - Is he intent on infuriating the players and lighting the fuse on another work stoppage in the NHL?

That’s what it looks like after looking at the opening proposal that was delivered by the league as it formally begins negotiations with the NHL Players’ Association on a new collective bargaining agreement.

There has been a lot of blood spilled and tears shed over the years and it looks like there could be more since the league is asking for players to accept a much smaller percentage of revenue in the next deal than it receives currently.

The NHL doles out 57 percent of its revenue to the players according to its current agreement. The league started negotiating by offering 46 percent of the revenues to the players.

It may be just the initial offer, but it is a gesture that cannot be received with open arms. Donald Fehr, formerly the head of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association, has taken over as the front man for the NHLPA. He has been through the wars and while he was a young hot head during his early days in baseball, he has matured as he has gained more experience.

His rhetoric following the NHL’s opening salvo was somewhat controlled. He did not let his emotions spill over after the opening round of talks and he told reporters that talk of any kind of work stoppage was premature because that is a step that would be taken by the players only as a last resort.

But the owners will find that Fehr has steel in his backbone if they challenge him. He has been through the most hostile of negotiations and won’t back down easily.

The idea of players having to go through salary rollbacks is something that gets him to stiffen his spine and let the owners know that his side will not accept.

“What do I think about salary rollbacks?” Fehr said to the Toronto Sun. “I think basically what most people representing employees would think about salary rollbacks. What I’m sure you would think about salary rollbacks if they came to you. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out what that is.

“I certainly assume that the owners would intend to comply with all of the contracts they have signed, and nobody has suggested (anything) to the contrary.”

Fehr was referring to the results of the last protracted negotiations that all hockey fans will remember cost the sport the 2004-05 season. There were no preseason games. No regular-season competition. The All-Star game did not happen and the league’s greatest jewel, the Stanley Cup playoffs were wiped out.

You want to believe that the leadership on both sides is too smart to let that happen again. But they weren’t smart enough to prevent that from happening eight years ago. While there’s a new man in charge of the players’ association, the same man stands at the top of the NHL’s pyramid.

That’s Bettman, and his job is to make sure the owners make plenty of money.

Seemingly, that’s just what they are doing. New streams of revenue have come from NBC, NHL.com, the NHL Network and the league’s interests in Europe.

On its opening blush, the league’s initial request seems to be a money grab by the greedy. The NHL’s revenues are now greater than $3 billion per season. The league is handing out multi-year, big-money contracts to stars and role players. Ryan Suter and Zach Parise get incredible contracts from the Minnesota Wild and that’s somewhat expected because they are superstars.

But when hard-hosed former Ranger Brandon Prust gets $10 million from the Montreal Canadiens, that’s quite another story. He is going to provide energy and toughness, but that’s still a shocking amount of money to pay a 27-year-old player who scored 5 goals and totaled 12 points last year.

If a team is willing to pay Prust that much, the NHL cannot be allowed to cry poor.

A starting point in the negotiations is just that, but the sport has been through enough in the past with labor unrest.

The off-season will fly by and the NHL needs to start treating the NHLPA like equal and respected partners if a fair deal is going to be secured quickly.

If not, Bettman and his owners will find themselves traveling down a familiar and bloody road.