Commentary

Classic threat tests Bettman's will

Updated: September 24, 2012, 5:05 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

So NHL commissioner Gary Bettman -- presumably with the blessing of his Stepford Wives ownership group -- will wipe the Winter Classic and the successful HBO reality series off the NHL map if there's not a deal in place with his players by early November, mid-November at the latest.

Sources have confirmed to ESPN.com that this is the plan and multiple outlets, including The Toronto Star, have reported the same.

The news put us in mind of the crime caper movie "The Usual Suspects." In the much-celebrated flick there are references to a mythic criminal figure, Keyser Soze. One of the stories about the Turkish Soze is that a rival gang from Hungary takes his family hostage in an attempt to take over Soze's criminal enterprise. They kill one of his children and assault his wife, but instead of agreeing to the kidnappers' demands, Soze kills his entire family and all but one of the kidnappers.

The incident is a measure of Soze's iron will, a testament to his ruthlessness that he would destroy what is nearest to him to preserve what he has built and refuse to show anything resembling weakness.

Was the story true? Was it apocryphal?

In the movie, none of this is made exactly clear, and actor Kevin Spacey's character muses that perhaps Soze himself is just a kind of bogeyman for criminals and cops.

[+] EnlargeGary Bettman
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireIs there anyone who believes that bluffing is part of Gary Bettman's vocabulary?

Does Bettman have the icy will to destroy that which is dear to him to eliminate any kind of leverage the event might represent in negotiations for the players? Certainly the one trump card the players seemed to have in getting the owners to move off their demands vis-a-vis how the league's revenues are divvied up was saving the event.

The threat to wipe out the Winter Classic, arguably the most important date on the NHL calendar, and certainly the single most important date on the regular-season calendar, brings into sharper focus the timeline we're looking at in getting a deal done and represents a significant raising of the stakes in this labor standoff.

If the Winter Classic turns to dust in the absence of a new collective bargaining agreement, does anyone think there is a deal the owners would accept short of complete capitulation by the players that would save the season? We would put those odds at somewhere between slim and none.

In other words, if the commissioner's threat is to be believed, there must be a deal in place in about six weeks, or else we can start talking about the chances of saving the 2013-14 season.

Perhaps having some sort of deadline with which to work toward will actually spur something approaching negotiation.

Everyone connected to the game -- analysts, supporters of the players, players themselves, owners, executives -- believes there is a deal to be made.

But the posturing has been maddening from two sides with so much to lose.

There have not been formal negotiations in almost two weeks, none since the lockout formally began Sept. 15.

In recent days, the two sides have been engaging in nonsensical sidebar labor-relations battles in Alberta and Quebec about whether the lockout is legal in those provinces, battles that have absolutely no bearing on a new CBA and, regardless of which side wins, have no bearing on the lockout outside of annoying the league and perhaps putting some pressure on those three teams (Calgary, Edmonton and Montreal), which could have to pay player salaries while the majority do not.

Does the threat to blow up the Winter Classic act as a catalyst to actual negotiations between two sides that to this point seem flummoxed about how to split up a record $3.3 billion in revenues?

The outdoor game and all that has grown up around it has become a symbol for the significant strides the game has taken in recent years, and certainly since the lockout that killed the 2004-05 season.

The bold if risky plan, the brainchild of league COO John Collins, began on a snowy New Year's Day afternoon in Buffalo and has grown to become must-see television not just for hockey fans but for sports fans tired of the tapioca offerings of college football through the holiday season.

The addition of the HBO reality series "24/7" two years ago that acted as a lead-in to the Winter Classic took the property to another level and opened a door to the so-called casual fan the league has been desperately chasing for years. Profane? Yes. Cool? Very.

In a short period of time, the event has produced spinoff events that have broadened the appeal to every level of hockey.

This year's Winter Classic set for Jan. 1 at The Big House in Ann Arbor, Mich., between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs was prepared to take another step forward in the event's evolution. The league is set to build two outdoor sheets: one at Comerica Park in downtown Detroit, home of the MLB's Tigers (who are owned by Red Wings owners the Ilitch family), and the other in Ann Arbor. There is a long slate of games set for the Comerica site, including a couple of alumni games featuring a who's who of former Red Wings and Leafs. As many as 120,000 people are (were?) expected at the Jan. 1 game, the first to include a Canadian team.

The event now hangs in the balance because the logistics that hosting such an event entail necessitate that a deal be in place by Thanksgiving (the U.S. variety), but also because Bettman's decree adds a different texture to that reality. Regardless whether it's logistics or Bettman drawing a very defined line in the sand, the end result is the same: All the chips are on the table now.

What kind of damage to the property would be done if the Winter Classic goes down a deep, dark hole? It's a microcosm of the question that is asked about the lockout's damage to the game as a whole.

No one knows, but the disgust for this work stoppage is palpable compared to eight years ago, something both sides seem blissfully unaware of at this point.

We know the disbelief that another season could be lost is mystifying to top individuals on both sides of this fence.

Lose the Winter Classic, does it lose its sheen forever?

If you were a sponsor for such an event, would you ever come back? If you were HBO, wouldn't you walk away shaking your head and find a sport that could actually get its act together?

Apparently Bettman is willing to take that risk, just as he is willing to risk long-term damage to the game he professes to love in pursuit of a deal he and his owners deem to be "fair."

Of course, there are those who believe Bettman is bluffing, that he and the league would want to hold on to the Winter Classic as long as humanly possible, given its importance to real revenues and to the image of the league as a whole.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told reporters Monday outside the league's Toronto offices that they have not set a deadline to cancel the event.

"Clearly, internally we're not even focused on the Winter Classic," Daly said. "We're not focused on a cancellation date for the Winter Classic. I'm not even sure we've come to a conclusion with respect to what that date has to be. But that date has nothing to do with bargaining anyway. That date will have to do with the logistics and reality of putting on the Winter Classic."

Is there anyone who believes that bluffing is part of Bettman's vocabulary?

By the end of "The Usual Suspects," it's still not entirely clear whether Keyser Soze was real or not. But things turned out rather ugly for most of the characters, regardless who believed.