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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman leaves after collective bargaining talks in Toronto on Tuesday October 16, 2012. (The Canadian Press)

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman leaves after collective bargaining talks in Toronto on Tuesday October 16, 2012.

(The Canadian Press)

Usual Suspects

Gary Bettman starts throwing punches Add to ...

And on the seventh day... they changed the conversation.

Faced with a union opponent playing rope-a-dope and aware that his corporate/broadcast partners are restless as the lockout clock ticks down, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman decided to start throwing punches on Tuesday. This after the NHL insisted that it would be the NHL Players Association that would have to make the next move.

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The NHL was also probably embarrassed by the revelation that it has been conducting fan focus groups using legendary Republican operative Frank Luntz. Looking to control the story, the locked-in owners had decided to polish their spin (No word how, “Here’s 10 bucks, kid. Go buy yourself something pretty” tracked.) As Bettman is wont to say, I love the smell of total surrender in the morning.

But the greater concern is the dampening effect on new business being written by the NHL while the lockout progresses. Sponsors are frustrated with this lockout but, even more, are being very circumspect about future deals. So the the Drowsy Commissioner got busy with a proposal to save the 82-game schedule and his precious upward curve in hockey-related revenues. On the positive side for the league, the bold timing - the second time the commish has blinked so far - effectively turned the heat back on players and away from the league’s problems.

Leading many to ask, is Bettman leading events or chasing them?

It’s been our opinion that Bettman’s only concern is the owners and their business plan. Which is exactly as it should be. They are his bosses. The bumpf about “commissioner of all the people” is a fiction akin to the worry that the NHL is hurting The Game. (As we’ve said before, Gary Bettman is about The Game the way Simon Cowell is about The Singing.)

Players fixating on Bettman are like moviegoers who hate Jack Palance in Shane, not the cattle barons who hired him. It misses the point. He deflects for the NHL ownership. Its strategy until today (to which it’s entitled since it pays the bills) has been uncompromising. Especially after its peers at the NBA and NFL came away with scalps from their recent lockouts. From that perspective, why shouldn’t Bettman use every lever to extract similar gains on their behalf?

This continued posturing stands in contrast to the MLB owners, however. After the 1994 strike, baseball’s owners stopped hiring guys like Frank Luntz to position themselves after another disastrous lockout. Having taken on Donald Fehr (and his predecessor Marvin Miller) eight times, the MLB owners decided enough was enough. It was smarter to co-operate with the employees (a message Fehr has tried-- unsuccessfully-- so far on hockey owners).

Since that revelation, MLB has gotten off the floor with public opinion. It has had uninterrupted product while reaping billions in sponsorships, TV deals and digital deals. It has dealt with its drug past. Oh, and small markets make the playoffs next to the Yankees. How good is that?

The best outcome of this lockout will not be 50/50 revenue splits or term limits on contracts. It will be a growing realization among the NHL owners that their leadership group keeps leading them into a blind alley. That there must be a better way than listening to the scorched-earth guys like Jeremy Jacobs who contend players are lower than mollusks on the evolutionary scale. That maybe, just maybe, the boys in baseball have it right.

If that, indeed, is the outcome for the vast number of owners then this nonsense will not have been without a purpose. Otherwise? A complete and utter waste of time.

Frank Comments: Amusing that the Canadian media is appalled that a Republican spinmeister has been hired by the league. Writers are making Luntz out to be some nefarious Darth Vader of media spin. Why wouldn’t you hire Luntz? Because MSNBC hates him? The GOP have an excellent chance at beating an incumbent president in three weeks.

You want someone who knows what he’s doing, right? Or is that not the Canadian way?

Zaun Gone: We’re worried that Gregg Zaun is getting clinically depressed watching these MLB playoffs. Between the base-running errors, fielding gaffes and other offences to old-time baseball, Zaun is in despair. Please, baseball, give him something to smile about!

As always, Zaun is a pistol on inside baseball. Sunday he took his time between innings to demonstrate how a catcher needs to position his body to frame pitches for the umpire and the pitcher. Using visuals of the catchers in the Detroit/New York game, he showed where the glove needed to be to keep pitches out of the hitting zone. Excellent TV.

It’s a tough gig for Alan Ashby to be dropped into the middle of the Sportsnet panel where Zaun and Campbell have a rhythm and chemistry. That makes it hard for Ashby to find his mark after working with Jerry Howarth all year. Like Zaun, Ashby’s always a straight shooter; given some time to assimilate, he’ll be a worthwhile addition to the panel.

We’ve also liked the analysis of former All Stars Cal Ripken and John Smoltz working with the unsung Ernie Johnson on TBS. In one instance on Sunday, Ripken adeptly described setting up a pitcher so he’d throw the pitch Ripken wanted, not the one the pitcher preferred. In another segment, Smoltz talked about setting up hitters to swing at your pitch, not the hitter’s. Insight for couch creatures.

Nill And Void: There has been a lot of talk at TV networks about soccer being the coming sport in Canada. For that to happen, the national side has to co-operate by showing a little progress. So the 8-1 mauling a listless Canadian team took against “mighty” Honduras has probably set back those dreams by four years - the time it’ll take to rebuild for a run at the 2018 World Cup.

Till then, we don’t want to hear wishful thinking or delusional dreams. No must-watch games or participation statistics. No network press releases about the sport’s penetration. Soccer boys, just... shut... up. We’ll watch the women play.

Go Blog Or Go Home: Finally, if you think social media hasn’t changed the coverage of sports, read this about a faux-blogger who sent Liverpool FC searching for spooks in its system. Amazing.

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