Arenas have been empty since Sept. 15, when National Hockey League owners locked out the players. NHL finances are in shambles, and the weak TV deal signed with NBC last spring suggests the league has little leverage and is now a second-tier sport. But say this for Commissioner Gary Bettman: He finally has owners marching in lockstep toward a tough new contract -- even if their unanimity is about a decade too late.

Under Bettman, the NHL has been skating on thin ice for years. Even though its revenues hit $2.1 billion last season, the league claims 20 of 30 franchises lost money, and that it lost a total of $225 million. Salaries zoomed to 75% of league revenues last season, from 41% in 1990-1991, the NHL says. That outstrips the share of revenues going to players in pro football (64%) and basketball (57%).

NHL owners, an undisciplined bunch, should shoulder much of the blame for wildly bidding up salaries. But little prudence has been shown by NHL Players Assn. chief Bob Goodenow, who might have been wise to heed Bettman's warnings that the unsustainable rate of salary growth was undermining the business on which players depend for their livelihood. In 1994 talks, Goodenow successfully resisted Bettman's efforts to ram through the sort of salary cap that is supposed to keep NFL and NBA payrolls in check. After a 103-day lockout, the Commish backed down, and the NHL accepted a watered-down plan that didn't do much to slow the pay spiral.

This time Bettman and the owners vow to hang tough, and the union's Dec. 9 offer to roll back salaries seems to reflect a recognition that a league-threatening problem exists. If the league holds out and wins a salary cap -- or even settles for a hefty rollback -- Bettman could end up looking like a shrewd crisis manager. But it was a crisis that should never have happened.

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