By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) Gary Bettman may not look like it, but he’s a bully.
He’s the architect of the latest NHL work stoppage, eight years after the last labor problem led to the cancellation of the 2004-05 season.
That time around, Bettman and the NHL owners claimed the financial structure of the game was in such poor shape that dramatic changes had to be made or the future of hockey was in jeopardy.
Many believed him. At the time, the NHL was paying more than 70 percent of its revenue towards player salaries.
Now that the collective bargaining agreement has expired, the NHL claims it needs to reduce the amount it is paying its players once again.
Just a few months ago, the NHL proudly announced how its revenues had grown from $2.1 billion after the last work stoppage to $3.3 billion.
The NHL has a 10-year, $2 billion television deal with the NBC Sports Network.
This does not compare with the television revenue that any of the other Big Three pro sports receives – especially the NFL – but it is far greater than the NHL has ever seen.
Yet after rolling back salaries 24 percent following the 2004-05 lockout, the NHL is asking for another rollback.
In its opening offer, it wanted another 24 percent. The NHL has backed off that offer, but it is expected that they are going to try to get at least another 12 percent before letting players come back to work.
The NHL says that despite the revenue increases, a number of teams are still losing money. The NHLPA acknowledges this and is willing to take less money, but it doesn’t want to bear the majority of the financial losses.
NHLPA chief negotiator Donald Fehr has presented a revenue-sharing plan similar to the one used in Major League Baseball. Fehr was one of the architects of that plan.
It’s a rational and productive solution that has proven to work successfully. Major League Baseball has not had any labor difficulties since the 1994 lockout that cost baseball the end of that year’s pennant race, the playoffs and the World Series.
That’s 18 years without any labor difficulties. That sounds pretty good to hockey fans these days.
But since hockey is the No. 4 sport on the grid and it’s only September, Bettman does not have to work on a compromise deal.
He can work on a bully deal. He doesn’t have to be fair to the players. He can attempt to maximize for the owner that pay him $8 million per year.
He can act like a bully because few are paying attention to the NHL right now.
Eventually, the work stoppage will come to an end. Most don’t expect this lockout to cost the NHL the full season the way it did in 2004-05.
However, don’t underestimate the greed and stubbornness of Bettman and the owners. While most say they have to be back by the league’s Winter Classic centerpiece on New Year’s Day, the NHL has already received its television revenue from NBC up front and they don’t have to give it back if the season is cancelled.
The only hardship would be giving NBC another year at the end of the deal in 10 years.
That would hurt … in 10 years. It would not hurt now.
That’s just the kind of stick that Bettman is too happy to swing.
He beat the players down in the last work stoppage and he wants to do it again.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.