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Dowbiggin: Flames’ owner Edwards emerges as unlikely hardball leader

Maybe it's the impending threat of losing sponsors or broadcasters. Maybe it's the looming threat of Mayan extinction. But after seemingly walking away forever from CBA talks last week, the NHL is back to the table today with federal mediators in tow.

One of the changes in this lockout from 2004-'05 has been the emergence of Calgary owner Murray Edwards as a principal force in the league's negotiating strategy. Figures close to the negotiations suggest that Edwards has even surpassed Boston's owner Jeremy Jacobs as the main proponent of the NHL's hardball approach. According to players in the negotiations, Edwards was also part of last week's Dump Don Fehr campaign aimed at players.

What makes Edwards participation in this process curious is that his own team, the Flames, are poster boys for the kind of spending the league is trying to curb. The Flames convinced their best defenceman Mark Giordano to take a hometown discount at $4-million a year for five years. That's good.

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But the Flames had already paid defenceman Jay Bouwmeester $6.75-million a year in 2009. Bouwmeester has never played a playoff game in his nine-year NHL career or junior career and, at 21 last season, is probably being paid $2-million a year more than his real value. Yet he makes more than Giordano, their ace.

Okay, you can point out that Bouwmeester was going to be an unrestricted free agent, and that boosted his value somewhat. How then to explain Edwards' Flames going out this summer and paying Dennis Wideman, considered a fifth or sixth defenceman, $5.25-million a year for five years? How do you tell Giordano that hometown discounts are good for him but not for players who are new to the dressing room?

The Flames are also doggedly hanging onto expensive aging stars such as Jarome Iginla ($7-million/year) and Miikka Kiprusoff ($5.833-million/year) in the vain hope of making the playoffs after missing three straight years with them. Flipping one or both of those players would seem to be prudent in adding young players to a prospect bench that is thin at best.

But instead Calgary's doubling and tripling down on their heroes of 2004's unlikely Stanley Cup Final appearance. To the aging core they added Detroit's Jiri Hudler (this year's Ville Leino) for four years at $4-million a year and unknown Euro Roman Cervenka (who dat?)at $3.77-million next year. This underachieving crew will cost $66-million in salary commitments whenever the NHL resumes play.

Yet, Edwards is lecturing players about the need to restructure the collective agreement to solve the NHL's woes. As agent Ritch Winter said in 2004, "Gary Bettman wants an idiot-proof system. Why doesn't he get rid of the idiots instead?"

Two decades of The Commish

Tuesday marked the 20th anniversary of Gary Bettman's hiring as NHL commissioner. This precipitated much critical comment about Bettman's record.

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The current CBA disaster will no doubt be carved on his tombstone. A third costly lockout since 1994 has not been his finest moment. The escalation in salaries (10 times what they were in 1992) is likewise unimpressive. Bettman's TV policy has been incoherent and his devotion to the 1990s notions of expansion and equity have outlived their usefulness.

The problem for Bettman is that his major accomplishments have been obscured from the average fan. His dogged pursuit of new owners and investors has saved a number of teams from extinction. He has also become a supporter of Canadian content (not named Ron MacLean) since taking the job. And his hire of John Collins as COO to grow broadcast and corporate revenues was inspired, at least till he threw them away with this lockout.

With the owners he works for, we're probably more understanding than most of the challenges he's faced . Going into the lockout we gave him a C+. We'll wait till this lockout ends to give a final grade. But it's not likely to improve. @dowbboy

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