Now that the NHL season is lost, it is time to turn to two ineluctable truths:
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman should resign. On his way out, he should hold the door for NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow.
There will be an NHL again somewhere in the murky future. There will be a labor agreement, however grudgingly won, that will bring down a shaky peace on a devastated hockey landscape. The animus that will have festered during this protracted labor dispute will make it virtually impossible for Bettman and Goodenow to continue to serve effectively -- if you think eviscerating the sport is service.
This lockout has nothing to do with compromise and everything to do with capitulation. There can be only one winner, relatively speaking, who crawls out of the morass of miscalculation that allowed the lockout to drag on this long.
Pretend you are Goodenow. If your union winds up taking, or winds up having forced down its throat, what it deems to be a bad deal, one that possibly is worse than the one you might have had last last September, your credibility is kaput. You will have cost players a year or two of what, on average, is an already fleeting NHL career. Presumably the rank-and-file of a newly restive union would want answers, if not your scalp.
Now think of yourself as Bettman. You promised your owners absolute cost certainty, an idiot-proof collective bargaining agreement that would make it a real challenge to lose money. After the last CBA, which you initially liked so much you extended it twice, you are obliged to deliver. If you surrender now or if somehow the union, through the National Labor Relations Board, nails you for not bargaining in good faith, you have failed. Even if you win a salary cap and a linkage between revenues and salaries but in doing so drastically have shrunk revenues, you have not done the owners any favors. (Bettman, a member of the generation indelibly marked by the Vietnam War, is familiar with the notion of bombing the country in order to save it.)
Presumably the owners, at least the ones who thought they could have made a decent buck under a soft cap and luxury-tax system, would not look kindly on your leadership.
Indeed Bettman's legacy looks increasingly grim. Accepting the NHL's own figures, which include losses of $1.8 billion over the past decade, Bettman would not be considered a riotously successful CEO. For all of the accomplishments -- the revenue plan that assisted Canadian teams blindsided by a weak dollar; the diversity task force that tried to open the whitest of sports to everyone; his ability to salvage bankrupt teams in Buffalo and Ottawa; getting national television deals in the United States -- apparently profits shrunk even as NHL revenues grew to almost $2.1 billion. The bottom line turned bad on Bettman's 12-year watch.
But the most damning aspect of his legacy had everything to do with what happened on the ice, not in the boardroom. The economics might stink, but they were no worse than a game that has visibly deteriorated. As former Hockey Night in Canada and Olympics producer Ralph Mellanby said, the game lost its way "because Bettman never cared about the product." The decline probably started with the lockout. The last lockout.
The NHL had momentum in 1994 from the New York Rangers' seven-game victory over the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup Finals, a victory that was as pleasing to the eye as it was potentially a boon to the business. Then it went dark for 103 days. The league returned with a 48-game schedule, the New Jersey Devils won their first Cup (the first of four straight sweeps in the Finals) and constipating hockey became the rage. Despite the publicized and laughably ineffective attempts at cracking down on obstruction and allowing stars the freedom to actually earn their astronomical salaries, the NHL hunkered down into the Dead-Puck Era.