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Gary Bettman: ‘This is very hard and I feel terrible about it’

Greg Wyshynski
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There were two occasions during his Thursday press conference in New York where Gary Bettman pushed aside lockout jargon for an attempt at emotion, like some Washington policy wonk ignoring his bar graphs long enough to ask, "what about the children?"

The first instance was a personal admission from the man that's overseen two work stoppages and will complete the hat trick on Saturday night.

"This is really hard. You only get involved in this situation when you understand what the issues are and you know you're doing the right thing for the long-term stability of the sport," he said.

"This is very hard and I feel terrible about it."

As he should. As the owners should. As Donald Fehr should. As the players should. That it got to this point, and that the realistic compromises, that both sides will eventually reach after months of the season are sacrificed, can't be bridged before the preseason starts.

The abject frustration for fans shouldn't be that there's a lockout, because all know this was the NHL's endgame. It's that the players and owners are this far down the rabbit hole and are still defining terms and arguing the fundamentals.

For example, the fundamental difference between the NHL and the NHLPA offers is that the players' projections are "assumptions and speculation based on their projections of league growth based on dollars, and not percentages," according to Bettman.

In other words, Bettman feels the NHLPA isn't coming down from 57 percent of the revenue when you take into account how their proposal is structured based on the current rate of growth for the league. While the official number for Year 1 of the NHLPA proposal has been 52 percent of revenue, Bettman feels that's deceiving.

[Related: League will suffer if NHL, NHLPA don't embrace compromise and common sense as lockout looms]

"If you fully understand the proposal, it's not 52 percent or anything close to it. You have to look at the dollars they want guaranteed. The dollars are an actual increase. They're projecting that down the road, at 7 percent-plus revenue growth, which is a very high assumption, you might get to 52 percent. Their proposal is not a percent proposal; it's a guaranteed dollar proposal," he said.

"They did not make a percentage of the growth offer."

This was Mirtle's take on that issue in his Globe and Mail piece on the proposal:

Despite what has been written in some circles, the players have offered some givebacks here. Even if league revenues grow at just 5 per cent (which they have exceeded in all but one of the last six years), the players will be offering back about $340-million (or $70-million a season) from where they are now at 57 per cent.

If there's big-time growth (8.5 per cent or more), the PA gives up $250-million or more a year. That's not nothing.

The key difference between the two deals is that the union is trying to stay at or above that $1.87-billion figure earned last season in order to avoid big-time escrow payments by its players right away. That's one of the things players have asked Fehr for, and he is listening and trying to deliver.

Again, they're still not speaking the same language. The players see the NHL's rate of growth remaining steady; the league believes that rate could be unsustainable.

The players see the league's use of escrow in the new CBA as a de facto salary rollback; the league see it as "in line with what they're used to in this agreement."

The players feel it's unfair to cap and reduce their wages when other costs for teams don't have similar controls; the league believes many of those ancillary costs are linked to the players anyway, and have risen over the life of the CBA.

"I don't think it makes sense on how the clubs run their businesses," said Bettman. "Those costs have increased dramatically."

(Incidentally, this topic brought forth what might be the first in recorded human history that there were references to both massage therapists and the price of charter jet fuel in the same sentence. Kudos, Mr. Bettman.)

Where does this leave us? Bettman said there's no lockout yet because there's still time for a deal to be made, but his words were about as hollow as an invisible Kevin Bacon.

The lockout's happening, much to Gary Bettman's chagrin. Which brings us to Emotional Moment No. 2, which came at the end of his press conference on Thursday.

"I hope to see you all soon," he said, solemnly.

"And I hope it's with better news."

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