Bettman takes on NHLPA over ESPN, drug testing, Coyotes

Judo chop!

If nothing else, Calgary Flames defenseman Robyn Regehr's prediction that Gary Bettman would address the NHLPA for 10 minutes before taking questions proves that the lockout taught these guys nothing.

There are times, when he's on message, that the commissioner resembles a robot from the future: He can't be bargained with. He can't be reasoned with. And he absolutely will not stop, ever, until you understand why the Versus deal works and everything he said about Phoenix is technically true.

Bettman spoke to the NHLPA for two hours at its meeting in Las Vegas, and Michael Peca described it thusly to

"It's like a Democrat coming to the Republican convention and talking about what they feel about health care and everything else," said the Columbus Blue Jackets center. "We've got similar thoughts about what the game should do, we've got, I think, different philosophies on the best ways to achieve those things. But I think it's always healthy. It gave the opportunity for players to ask questions and get answers -- maybe not fully the answers that they'd like, but certainly the ability to ask those questions."

The conversation ranged from television to drugs to the Phoenix Coyotes. Bettman's company line aside, the NHLPA appears very right and very wrong on a number of key issues.

What the NHLPA discussed in Vegas, in between finding Mike Tyson's tiger in their bathroom and marriages to strippers with hearts of gold. (Guess what movie we saw over the weekend ...)

The Winter Classic Doubleheader. As Leahy pointed out over the weekend, the players have been consistent in shooting down this idea for the last year. If their level of annoyance this time is due to a lack of communication from the NHL and the fact that revenues from the game are a bit murky from a PA standpoint, then it's understandable.

But here's the thing: The Winter Classic is, outside of the Stanley Cup Final, the single biggest television event for the NHL right now. (Sorry, All-Star Game.) For all their moaning about marketing, promotion and the current television deal, why wouldn't the PA support a second Classic game in Canada on Jan. 1? If nothing else, the gimmick is catnip to the television cameras the Association craves coverage from. Speaking of TV ...

Returning To ESPN. You knew this would come up. From Chris Johnston of the Canadian Press:

Another issue that came up with Bettman is the league's U.S. television contracts. Many players would prefer the league to strike a deal with ESPN, but the commissioner remains committed to Versus and NBC.

Regehr chuckled while describing the spin Bettman put on that issue while meeting the players. "I think it was a really good commercial by him for Versus and NBC," said Regehr.

This battle has been well-fought here on Puck Daddy, and will continue to be. But again, Bettman's in a position of strength here now: The ratings are successful on both NBC and Versus, and until ESPN antes up a rights fee package that matches or eclipses the one the NHL receives from Comcast ... well, it's just rather stunning to think that the NHLPA would be in favor of what amounts to a charitable discount just to sign up with Disney.

Drug Testing. Our buddy Corey Masisak of the Washington Times has a terrific review of the drug testing debate between the NHLPA and the NHL. NHLPA chief Paul Kelly said some positive things and some discouraging things:

Kelly said during the Stanley Cup Finals that the players would discuss the stricter suggestions and vote on whether they would be willing to accept the tougher standards. There was no vote, but Kelly said he would like to see any alterations to the testing policy negotiated before the end of the collective bargaining agreement, which has two seasons remaining, plus an optional year.

Some of the concerns from the players union include how privacy would be affected with offseason testing and the NHL's lack of involvement with the American Hockey League on the issue. The AHL does not have a drug-testing policy, and Kelly said the NHL should impose its influence on its top minor league and even help pay for the testing. Kelly said Bettman didn't agree with his assessment about the NHL's influence but that it is a good point and something the league should look into.

"I don't think there is a problem in our sport. That said, I think we could take some steps to improve our program," Kelly said. "The playoff testing is the most obvious one that ought to be addressed. We should take a good, hard look at the list of substances, but it has to be a two-way street."

The AHL non-policy is a stunner, because a collection of players willing to do anything to earn a trip to The Show might be susceptible to performance enhancing drugs, right?

What gives us the red-ass about Kelly's continued assurance that there isn't "a problem" in hockey is the fact that the testing policy isn't strict enough to figure out if there is one. Maybe using the "the World Anti-Doping Agency's in-competition list instead of the current policy of using the shorter, out-of-competition list," as Bettman suggests, will unfairly target some substances that shouldn't be targeted. But the testing policy needs tightening, and at least Kelly sounds amendable to that.

Bottom line: Thanks, baseball steroid testing news leakers, for giving every other players union or association in sports a reason to hide behind privacy concerns.

The Phoenix Coyotes. This would have been the ultimate fly-on-the-wall conversation for this meeting, because the players rightfully feel that Bettman flat-out deceived them on the Coyotes situation before the court case provided some sunshine. None of the press accounts appear to indicate that things reached a boil at the NHLPA meeting, but Pierre LeBrun of ESPN received some interesting comments from Peca:

"I actually share a lot of the feelings that the commissioner conveyed about the Phoenix situation," Peca told "When you've got a kid that plays hockey and you know hockey's their life, you don't want to ever see that taken away. You've got to build roots in communities.

"It's easy to transplant a team into Toronto or Southern Ontario and it would succeed, but there's a growing base of kids that are playing hockey and in minor hockey systems that are thriving now in these communities that you don't want to rip away. It's a touchy thing and hopefully those organizations work out."

Outside of Columbus, Peca hasn't really spent all that much time in non-traditional markets, so his take is refreshing. The question is whether he's the vocal minority on this.

Salary Cap. According to the Canadian Press, the issue of a cap "inflator" wasn't settled:

One thing that wasn't officially decided here was whether the players will enact the five-per-cent inflator on the salary cap -- a decision that will affect next year's number by US$2 million. Secret ballots were cast by the player representatives in attendance but there wasn't enough of them to register a binding result. Missing players have until Tuesday to register their vote.

One figures this is awaiting a rubber stamp.

Fighting. Finally, there was discussion of fighting, but none of it was probably as entertaining than the discussion Georges Laraque of the Montreal Canadiens had outside the meeting. Check out his take on staged fights; the end of the clip looks like he's cutting a promo for ECW:

Buddy Oakes of Preds On The Glass has a few more videos like this one on his site, and they're all worth a look. Great stuff.

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