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It’s time for Gary Bettman and the NHL to police its owners

Greg Wyshynski
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In the two days before the NHL lockout began, almost $200 million in new contracts were signed by players.

Tyler Seguin of the Boston Bruins and Evander Kane of the Winnipeg Jets both signed for six seasons, which is beyond the contract length restriction of five years the NHL offered in its first proposal to the NHLPA in July. Which is to say that Jeremy Jacobs, one of Gary Bettman's veteran cheerleaders, and Mark Chipman, forever in debt to the commissioner for allowing the NHL back in Manitoba, had signed off on the types of deals the owners are asking Bettman and the NHL to curtail.

Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly met with several media outlets on Monday, and each time was asked about this seeming hypocrisy. His answer to TSN was similar to his other responses:

"It's the individual vs. the collective. We have 30 very competitive individual teams and owners. They were working under a certain set of rules, and they're trying to position their team as best they can before the rules change."

Bettman and Daly aren't exactly harvesting sympathy these days, but it's here where I kinda feel for them: How incredibly, absolutely maddening must it be enter labor war and slash games off the schedule — let alone cancel a season — just to see the businessmen for whom you're fighting gleefully subvert their own rules?

Or to see the same owners who complain about the salary structure of the NHL inflate that structure like a Thanksgiving Parade balloon thanks to irresponsible contracts?

How do they even look you in the eye and complain about a system they've royally [expletived]?

"We're not looking at a system that guarantees every club profitability," said Daly this week.

Of course they're not. It doesn't exist in the NHL.

Daly's conversations on Monday were revelatory in that it's clear the NHL knows its owners can't be trusted fiscally, nor can some of their markets be trusted.

"We didn't want to cry poor as the reason we're in the negotiation we're in. And quite frankly, I think it's safe to say we hoped we wouldn't be where we are, and we didn't expect to be where we are," said Daly, wherever he was.

"It's about 30 clubs having an opportunity to make money. Yes it is. It's not about guaranteeing all 30 clubs are profitable."

That's what makes this lockout so infuriating: It's not about ensuring teams that lose money reverse course and find success. That was the last lockout. This time, it's about tweaking the system so they maybe, potentially, possibly might make money, depending on the time of day and the weather.

Why does it have to be like this?

From a fans' perspective, the NHL seems to have an appetite for dictating terms to the players, to the point where they'll prevent them from working. Yet when it comes to the owners, the NHL seems passive aggressive — nodding to mismanagement, but never outright acknowledging that they're complicit in this mess. Always firing around the edges but never hitting the bull's-eye.

Like when Daly said:

"I don't buy into the premise of owners being protected from themselves, but you want a system that creates predictable boundaries."

No, no, no … protect them from themselves like a Denver Broncos lineman protecting Peyton's neck bones from a blitzing linebacker!

Do whatever it takes — either within the CBA or strong-arming them behind closed doors — to eradicate the fiscal irresponsibility that gets us into this labor nonsense every seven years.

The problem, obviously, is that the NHL still serves at the pleasure of its owners. That's not a problem in the NFL, where the commissioner's office is fueled by TV revenue and sponsorship dollars and can dictate terms to any of its teams. (Hence: Thursday Night Football with replacement refs.)

But in the NHL, the League isn't that strong (yet). There's still a sense that the NHL should feel blessed to have 30 individuals or corporations willing to invest in a sport that doesn't guarantee profit. It's tough to rule with an iron fist when you're wearing kid gloves.

Thing is, there are likely as many owners who would side with Bettman as they are ones who subvert the financial controls they've asked for in the NHL. It's something the NHLPA knows too, which is why it hopes there's a crack in ownership and practically begs for them to be un-muzzled during CBA talks.

As Daly said, "teams look to the league for a system."

They should also look to the League for emphatic admonishment when they choose to undermine that system. It's not enough for the NHL to be the owners' labor lawyer — it needs to be their Judge Dredd too.

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