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Gordon: Bettman fails to alter his legacy

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Gary Bettman at Scottrade

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, at Scottrade Center in May, when Tom Stillman was introduced as the head of the Blues' new ownership group. (Photo by Chris Lee / Post-Dispatch)

Gary Bettman missed a glorious opportunity to rewrite his legacy as NHL commissioner. He blew his chance to shed his label as the Architect of Doom.

By finding constructive solutions to the sport’s serious financial challenges, Bettman could have ensured a more prosperous future for the NHL.

By avoiding a prolonged and destructive labor standoff, he could have propelled the league forward toward great relevance in the U.S. sports marketplace.

By guiding the owners through more peaceful negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement, he could have built upon his many successes in recent years.

The crackdown on interference violations in the ice paid big dividends. The reduction of clutching and grabbing brought more speed and skill to the sport.

Officiating improved greatly. The league perfected the use of instant replay to review goals.

The league became far more proactive on player safety. It cracked down on blatant head hunting, stepped up player discipline and became a sports industry leader on concussion treatment.

The salary cap system created unprecedented competitive balance. While only a few NBA teams have a real chance to win the championship in any given year, most NHL playoff teams have a legitimate chance to make a run at the Stanley Cup.

The decision to move the U.S. cable rights from ESPN to the Versus Network proved prescient. The World Wide Leader in Sports was never going to make hockey a headline sport.

Versus morphed into the NBC Sports Network with the NHL as a cornerstone property. With the NHL Network also gaining a higher profile, the league is doing a better job of promoting the sport through television.

The tie-breaking shootout concept became a fan favorite, over the protests of many coaches.

The Winter Classic quickly became a hallmark event for the sport, broadening its appeal among casual fans. HBO’s documentary-style coverage of the Classic lead-up explored the sport’s mystique and bolstered hockey’s image.

The NHL became much stronger at its roots. Canada regained a team for Winnipeg when the Thrashers moved out of the tepid Sun Belt market in Atlanta.

The Islanders finally escaped their woeful arena scenario on Long Island by recently agreeing to move to Brooklyn’s new arena for the long haul.

The signs of progress almost seem endless. But we’re not thinking about the good things right now.

Instead, hockey lovers are lamenting the latest NHL shutdown and the looming cancellation of the season’s Winter Classic. This game at Michigan Stadium, in front of 100,000-plus fans, was going to be the central piece of a much larger hockey celebration in Greater Detroit.

This opportunity lost would add another black mark on Bettman's permanent record and remind everybody he is still running a Garage League.

Bettman’s ill-advised negotiating posture has galvanized members of the NHL Players Association. The players braced for the worst. They were prepared to take a tough stance of their own -- and they trumpeted that intention by hiring hard-liner Donald Fehr to lead their group.

Hockey players aren’t inclined to back down, especially when Bettman is doing the leaning.

“One of the things NHL owners love about NHL players is that you’re willing to do whatever it takes for the team,” veteran defenseman Sean O’Donnell told ESPN.com. “You’re willing to block a shot, you’re willing to fight a guy if it’s going to pick your team up. Whatever it takes for the team. Hockey I think has the least individual element in it out of all the team sports.

“Well, I think what owners have to remember is that in this situation, this is a team of 700 or 750 players. Guys will sacrifice individually for the good of the team, not only this year’s team but the team down the road.”

The NHL ignored these clear signals and persisted with strong-arm tactics. The league opened with a draconian proposal, budged a little and then essentially shut down the talks with its take-it-or-leave-it approach.

As a result, we won’t see the NHL resume play any time soon.

The impact of this latest player lockout will be profound. The fan base will erode dramatically in many markets.

Some owners will opt out of the business. A team or two could move. Dozens of players will see their careers end. Others may opt to remain in Europe, where the leagues run without interruption.

Much of the progress made since the last lockout will be lost.

Hockey will remain a fringe sport in this country, well out of the mainstream. The NHL will remain a sad example of how not to run a professional sport.

History will remember Bettman's regime as uneven at best. It didn't have to end this way.

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