Commentary

Progress isn't the end for Bettman

Updated: December 6, 2012, 2:54 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- As the pinprick of light on the black canvas of the NHL lockout threatens to become a full-fledged beacon of light, already there is a rush to anoint the winners and losers, the heroes and goats.

That's life.

And while it may be a fool's errand to try to ferret out who bested whom in a wholly preventable labor stoppage -- with said labor stoppage still technically under way even though the two sides met on and off for 11 hours on Wednesday with continued forward traction between the players and the owners -- such discussion provides a window into future labor battles and the future of embattled NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

Is Bettman a genius for suggesting that he and his NHL Players' Association counterpart, executive director Donald Fehr, step away from the process after a failed attempt at federal mediation last week?

Credit Bettman for understanding that with the season hanging in the balance, the air had become so toxic in those rare moments the two sides actually found enough reason to be in the same room that the loathing and mistrust trumped all other issues and that the two men stepping back would allow that air to be cleared.

And likewise, credit Fehr, whose plodding strategies had made league officials crazy during this process, for going along with the idea even though his first reaction must have been to tell Bettman to stuff it.

And guess what? It worked.

Or at least it is working.

Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly invited the union to send as many players as it liked to a meeting Tuesday, while providing four new ownership voices to the mix: Pittsburgh's Ron Burkle, Tampa's Jeff Vinik, Winnipeg's Mark Chipman and Toronto's Larry Tanenbaum. The players sent 18 to New York, including some of the most respected players in the game like Sidney Crosby, Shane Doan, Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis and Ryan Miller.

The two sides met throughout Tuesday afternoon and long into the evening, sparking more talks Wednesday after the NHL Board of Governors' annual December meeting broke midafternoon.

And, the two leaders swallowed their considerable egos and stood aside, an act that appears now to be a catalyst for a deal to save as many as 60 regular-season games.

That's good, right?

Still, the fact of the matter is that an impasse that just a few short days ago looked very much like it would lead to a second lost season for the NHL in the past seven years might be resolved expressly because the two men who lead the opposing sides were absent from the process.

That's not so good, is it?

Indeed, the fact that traction was gained almost the second the two left the room begs certain questions about both men and their leadership styles.

It's all the more damning for Bettman, who has authorized three lockouts during his watch as commissioner, the second one going into the record books as the first labor dispute to lead to the cancellation of an entire professional sport season, including playoffs.

That's definitely not so good.

Much of the early credit for whatever breakthrough Tuesday's and Wednesday's meetings might represent has gone to Burkle and Crosby (although Crosby's teammate Craig Adams, another of the league's more thoughtful players, has been a regular attendee at bargaining sessions including this week).

As it should.

Burkle wanted to be part of the newly reconstituted ownership bargaining group and his presence was key to getting the two sides to talk frankly about where they stood on pillar issues like the league's honoring of current contracts and contracting issues.

It is clear from various reports, including one by ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun, that Crosby, his agent Pat Brisson (one of the most powerful men in the business) and Penguins ownership have been in regular dialogue in recent days as the lockout appeared headed for the rocks.

Both sides of Team Penguins acknowledged frustration at how things were going and the feeling that the season could very easily be lost without some dramatic movement from both sides.

Both sides have been very cautious, but at the heart of this was a fear that the status quo meant disaster.

Many will color this an obvious attempt to circumvent Bettman's leadership or lack thereof and say a deal was done in spite of the commissioner.

Maybe. And maybe this is the moment that ensures that these negotiations will be the last presided over by Bettman.

It's worth noting when considering the impact this lockout might have on Bettman's legacy that virtually every owner in the room on Wednesday owes the commissioner some debt of gratitude.

That goes for Burkle and co-owner Mario Lemieux, who would not enjoy their status as owners of one of the most successful franchises in the league, one with a shiny new building in downtown Pittsburgh, without Bettman's involvement.

It goes for Chipman, whose Winnipeg Jets returned to the NHL last season, after disappearing to Phoenix in the summer of 1996, when Bettman helped broker a move of the Atlanta Thrashers to the hockey-mad prairie city.

So it goes for Vinik, Calgary's Murray Edwards and on down the list.

So if anyone imagines that what has happened this week will end up seeing Bettman given the bum's rush out of the NHL's New York offices, his briefcase and foam fan finger flying out behind him onto the Avenue of the Americas, they will be sadly mistaken.

In many ways, such discussion is moot given that Bettman is approaching his 20th anniversary as commissioner. Assuming a new deal extends at least six years -- the owners are reportedly pushing for a 10-year deal (does anyone hear 100?) -- how likely would it be that Bettman would still be at the helm next time around regardless of how this played out?

It may matter to the legion of fans, players and agents who naively blame Bettman for this entire mess. Were that life was that simple. It's not.

Still, as we watch intently for that pinprick of light to grow into something more, something like a real hockey season, it's worth noting that regardless of how we got here and how history will judge the winners and losers, this much is undeniable: While you can argue Gary Bettman is the author of most of this labor darkness, there is no light this week without him.