Hockey people should be having fun right now.
NHL players are arriving in their cities, eager for training camps to start next week and readying for the resumption of their rising paychecks.
The league is coming off a record-setting year in which it raked in billions of dollars, with fans spending more money on everything from mobile apps to jerseys to video games.
With television viewership up and the Stanley Cup residing in the United States' second-largest market, folks everywhere from championship-winning Los Angeles to Canadian outposts in Newfoundland and Labrador should be anticipating the continuation of the sport's impressive growth.
Instead, a seemingly inevitable work stoppage clouds the sunshine.
"The game has never been better," Buffalo Sabres defenseman Mike Weber said last week, "and it's a tough thing to explain to players and obviously explain to fans and people who love hockey that we might not be playing for a long time."
Although NHL fans shouldn't be shocked by work stoppages, the one that threatens the start of the 2012-13 season is more difficult to grasp than the disputes that forced the cancellation of 2004-05 and the shortening of the 1994-95 season. At first glance, it seems nearly everything is rosy in the NHL.
"It's just upsetting," Weber said. "The game is so good and the fan base is so good."
The league, though, insists it can't operate under the current guidelines (which the owners themselves wrote following the last work stoppage). The collective bargaining agreement between the owners and players expires at midnight Saturday, and if a new deal isn't in place the teams will lock out the players.
That could put the kibosh on the rookies scheduled to report next Sunday, the veterans angling to open training camp Sept. 21 and the season that is supposed to begin Oct. 11.
"It's the ugly side of hockey," retired Sabres defenseman and former NHLPA representative Jay McKee said. "The thing is, there's good arguments for both sides, and that's why it's tough to come to an agreement."
The leaders of the NHL and its players' association resumed dialogue this weekend after a weeklong "recess" caused by a lack of common ground. They remain far apart on the core issues, however, creating an air of pessimism as the final week of the offseason begins.
"It's always good to have dialogue, and the dialogue never stops, even when we're not formally meeting," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters Friday in New York.
"The lines of communication have been open, and they'll stay open."
To recap for those who have been following the ordeal and to inform those who put hockey on the back burner over the summer, the core issues revolve - as always - around money.
"We believe we're paying the players more than we should," Bettman said.
The owners crushed the players with the 2004-05 lockout and had almost free reign to write their own CBA. They rolled back salaries 24 percent and created a salary cap tied to revenues.
Those revenues rose to a record $3.3 billion last season, up from $2.2 billion in 2003-04. The salary cap, meanwhile, has skyrocketed from $39 million in 2005-06 to a temporary $70.2 million for the coming season.
More importantly for lower-revenue clubs, the salary cap floor (the minimum teams must spend) has ballooned to $54.2 million.
"Our experience has shown that 57 percent to the players is too much," Bill Daly, the NHL's deputy commissioner, told last week.
The league kick-started negotiations this summer with a proposal that would have dropped the players' share of hockey-related revenues to 43 percent, a payroll reduction of $460 million. The NHLPA laughed and responded with a framework that gave back money but demanded an increase in revenue sharing between large- and small-market clubs.
"Meaningful revenue sharing is an essential component of any successful league," the NHLPA wrote on its website in a document titled, "Setting the Record Straight: CBA Myths vs. Facts."
"After seven straight seasons of record revenue, it's clear that if the NHL has a problem, it is not a revenue issue, but rather a revenue disparity issue," the document said.
Bettman has said revenue sharing is merely a distraction to the real problem. The owners' second offer proposed a 46 percent share of revenue to the players, according to the NHLPA, and negotiations ground to a halt shortly thereafter.
"It's obviously extremely tough right now," said Weber, who went to New York to take part in the negotiations. "We're already operating under an owners-approved CBA. We took their offer the last time.
"That's why it's difficult to handle. We've already taken what they wanted us to take last time, and now they want to take more. We're just looking for a fair deal, and hopefully we get back to negotiating soon because we're ready to go."
More than 200 players are expected to attend meetings in New York starting Wednesday, while the league has a board of governors meeting scheduled for Thursday. The sides need to come together with a new CBA before Saturday or a lockout will take place.
"If you look at what happened after the last one, we lost a full season but I think the game thrived for the fans, for the players and for the owners," McKee said. "Hopefully, it will be resolved sooner rather than later this time."