By Michael Rosenberg
October 04, 2012

Steven Spielberg has a new movie called Lincoln coming out soon. I hope it is historically accurate and includes Lincoln's famous statement: "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, and you can bite me, Gary Bettman."

The NHL is locked out again. You may not have noticed this, because NHL players merely play hockey and do not provide an important public service to the United States like call pass-interference penalties. But it's true: Another lockout.

The NHL just canceled two weeks of the regular season, though the games could be made up if the league and its players suddenly decide to agree on everything. I wouldn't hold my hope out for that one, though. This is a negotiation between Bettman and Donald Fehr, those two lovable porcupines, which means you can expect blood.

We're going to be here for a while. It is even possible the whole season will be lost. I find that unlikely, because it would be colossally stupid, but hey, let's not underestimate Bettman. Or overestimate him. Whatever the right term is. The man has a remarkable ability to divide and not conquer. Bettman could get a five-year-old girl to hate her favorite doll. He could even get the doll to hate the girl.

Bettman would argue about the range of issues at stake here. And he might be right. But for most hockey fans, this is about Bettman. And it is hard to argue with them.

The most important thing to understand in these NHL labor talks is that, at some point, there will be an agreement. I mean, they're not going to shut down pro hockey forever. We won't sit here in 50 years and tell our grandkids, "Hey, guys used to skate around the ice, putting pucks in the net for a living." (They would respond "Ice? What was that?" because of global warming and all.)

There will be a deal. But the fact it will probably take so long is an indictment of Bettman, for a simple reason: He has been through this before -- twice. In 1994, he canceled almost half the season because of a labor dispute. And he canceled the entire 2004-05 season because of a labor dispute.

How do you cancel an entire season to get the labor deal you want, then end up in the same position just a few years later? What the heck was the point of that?

Bettman walked away from that mess with a labor contract that guaranteed players 54 percent of the league's revenues, as long as those revenues were less than $2.2 billion.

When that agreement was struck, Bettman said, "We're very confident that it will enable all teams to participate in the system in a constructive way."


Now he wants the players' share to be capped at less than 50 percent.

Bettman is fond of pointing out that the league is bringing in way more money than it ever has before. This is absolutely true. People have been saying hockey is dying for years, and in many ways it is actually as popular as it's ever been. Bettman deserves some credit for that.

But fundamentally, part of his job is to ensure labor peace and give his owners a strong chance at profitability. Some would argue that is most of his job. How many times does Bettman have to go through this before he realizes he is part of the problem?

He reminds me of former Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, who was just fired after a dismal season. Valentine got in one mini-feud after another this year: With Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, a radio host, and probably a dozen other people we haven't even heard about. And in every situation, Valentine can claim -- and has claimed -- he was right. He didn't mean to offend Youkilis. The players never gave him a chance. The radio host asked a rude question. And all of those things may be true. But Valentine has been through this before, in Texas and New York, and he had most of the same problems there. He is a self-promoter who talks too much, and he would think he is the smartest man in the room if he walked into a Mensa meeting.

Valentine may be right about many things. But his insistence on being right about everything, and letting everybody know it dooms him.

What does this have to do with Gary Bettman? Well, he can say the teams are losing money and the players don't get it and they all need to work together -- and he may be right. He can point to all the issues and say the players need to give in on this and sacrifice that -- and he may be right.

But Bettman's job is not just to be right. His job is to give the labor peace to his league and prosperity to his owners. And he has consistently failed at both -- the latter by his own admission.

If many owners still aren't making money after two decades of Bettman's commissionership, then whose fault is that?

There will be a deal. But there should have been one by now, or at least real progress toward one. Nobody is right in this fight, and nobody is wrong -- it's not a moral question. The NHL can make 1,000 points about this labor dispute. Most of their fans will only see one: Gary Bettman has botched it again.

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