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Optimism fades around NHL

David Pollak San Jose Mercury News

SAN JOSE, Calif. – That loud noise you heard last week was a 24-hour window of optimism slamming shut.

Before that happened, however, there was much chatter about the fact that neither NHL commissioner Gary Bettman nor players’ union president Bob Goodenow was invited to take part in “small group” dialogue between opposing sides in the lockout.

When Wednesday’s meeting went well enough to schedule a second day, it confirmed one school of thought: See, those two guys are a big part of the problem. Eliminate them and progress will be made.

Wrong, eh? Thursday, it was back to doom and gloom.

Among fans and the media, there has been demonizing on both sides – Goodenow for blinding players to economic realities, Bettman for insisting that players fix mistakes he helped create. But among the parties most directly involved, the commissioner has been the main target.

“Listen, Gary’s the guy running the ship, and he knows nothing about hockey. He’s a basketball guy,” Toronto defenseman Bryan McCabe told the Toronto Sun, joining Chris Chelios, Manny Legace and others in criticizing the commissioner. “If he bumped into me on the street, he wouldn’t know me. You could probably say that if he bumped into 95 percent of the league.”

Bettman does have an NBA background. As NBA Commissioner David Stern’s protege, he crafted pro sports’ first salary cap. And he can sound defensive about his commitment to hockey.

“I have devoted virtually all of my waking hours for the last 12 years to this game, every aspect of it,” Bettman said in December. “Nobody can be more passionate about this game than I am.”

Bettman’s lieutenants make it clear that personal attacks on the commissioner, whether his background or expansion strategy is being challenged, frost them.

“To the extent Gary’s a sticking point, that’s very unfortunate and entirely a product of misinformation and disinformation being given on the other side,” said chief negotiator Bill Daly, noting his boss acts at the direction of the owners. “It’s a tactic in collective bargaining and it’s unfortunate. This doesn’t come down to personalities.”

Sharks center Mark Smith has become the third NHL player to wind up in the East Coast Hockey League during the lockout, signing last week with the Victoria (B.C.) Salmon Kings.

That keeps Smith, an avid surfer, close to the water. But the fourth-liner has some explaining to do when it comes to his – and his union’s – opposition to a salary cap. Because the ECHL has a cap that’s a doozy – a $10,000 weekly payroll for the entire roster.

Teams throw in a place to live, but that means Smith – who would have earned $535,000 with San Jose this season – won’t be earning more than $1,000 a week.

Other NHL players in the ECHL are Scott Gomez and Curtis Brown.

Two more Sharks are playing in Sweden, further evidence – if anyone needed it – that the NHL season is toast.

Forward Scott Thornton signed with Sodertalje SK in the elite league. Goalie Vesa Toskala, recovered from a World Cup injury, is playing with HV 71 in the same league.

The Hockey News, which has filled its pages weekly with all sorts of economic analyses and finger-pointing during the lockout, becomes a bi-weekly publication starting Thursday.

The paper’s Web site still came up with a scoop, reporting Friday that players were told during this week’s meetings that teams would use a dispersal system to shift players from high-payroll teams to low-payroll clubs once a salary cap is in place.

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