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The NHL and commissioner Gary Bettman are considering a four division format at this year's board of governors meetings currently underway in California.FILE PHOTO: THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP Photo/Kathy Willens (Kathy Willens/CP)
The NHL and commissioner Gary Bettman are considering a four division format at this year's board of governors meetings currently underway in California.FILE PHOTO: THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP Photo/Kathy Willens (Kathy Willens/CP)

Bettman keeps his cards close to the vest Add to ...

ANAHEIM, Calif. - NHL commissioner Gary Bettman - the de facto owner of the Phoenix Coyotes - was in attendance for their Wednesday night game against the Anaheim Ducks, a grim 6-2 loss and spent part of the day briefing the team’s general manager, Don Maloney, on the sale/no sale of the franchise, which continues to operate under NHL control.

Bettman also took time to exchange pleasantries with reporters before the start of the game - and occasionally in the past, in that sort of setting, would stray slightly off message. Not on this night though. No matter what the topic - Phoenix’s future, collective bargaining, outdoor game, supplementary discipline, player safety issues - Bettman kept his cards close to the vest. He really is a fascinating man to banter with - careful, cautious, always wary about where there might be a trap in the line of questioning. This was a masterful performance, in many ways, as he girds up for the first round of negotiations on the next collective bargaining agreement with the players association.

The current CBA expires on Sept. 15, fewer than eight months from now, and the two sides have still not begun the process of negotiating a new contract. According to Bettman, his opposite number with the players’ association, executive director Donald Fehr, suggested he needed until the All-Star break to canvass his membership to get a clearer understanding of their issues.

Well, as it happens, the 2012 All-Star break is coming up in Ottawa in just over a week’s time. Bettman ventured that the league is in a far stronger position than it was six-and-a-half years ago, when the two sides managed to lose the entire 2004-05 season before finally settling on a deal that was supposed to be the salvation for small-market NHL teams.

So does that mean the old deal worked well enough that it won’t require massive changes, only minor tweaks? Bettman wouldn’t go there at all, unwilling to tip his hand about strategy, or demands.

“Anything we have to say about collective bargaining - the system, the agreement - we’ll do it with the players association quietly,” answered Bettman. “The fact is, we’re having another terrific season; this will be another record-breaking season for us, both in terms of revenues and attendance and I don’t see any reasons for anybody to be distracted by collective bargaining, certainly not now.

“Good try though.”

Thanks. So let’s try another one: With the support of Glendale City Council, the league has been running the Coyotes ever since former owner Jerry Moyes took the team into bankruptcy, in an unsuccessful attempt to sell them to RIM’s Jim Balsillie. The NHL desperately wants the team to stay put in Arizona but so far, has been unable to attract an ownership group willing to plough real dollars into the enterprise.

The fact that “nothing is imminent” on Phoenix - Bettman’s words - cannot bode well. The NHL’s losses have been underwritten in the past couple of seasons by Glendale’s taxpayers, but that tap will eventually run dry. Even Bettman was prepared to acknowledge that much: “We haven’t had that discussion, but if I was speculating, that would be my guess. At some point, if we can’t get it resolved for next season, we’ll have to consider our alternatives - but that’s not new news.”

Bettman’s best line concerned Brendan Shanahan, the new director of player safety, who is in charge of supplementary discipline this year, replacing Colin Campbell in that position. Bettman praised the job Shanahan is doing, noting: “This job is everything he expected - and more. But I also think the players are hearing him. I think particularly with the videos, there’s greater clarity as to what is expected on the ice and what won’t be tolerated.,”

When I suggested that Shanahan looks a lot older today than when he took the job during last year’s Stanley Cup finals in Vancouver, Bettman agreed: “He aged probably five years in the last five months.

“This is a hard, hard job that he has. The decisions are hard and nobody’s ever happy.”

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