The natural approach this morning would be blaming the owners. Blame them for being greedy and careless and selfish. Blame them for shutting down the NHL for the third time since Gary Bettman was named commissioner. Blame them for their irrational and inefficient approach to negotiations.
Remember, this work stoppage is a lockout, not a labor strike. NHL players would have reported for training camp at 12:01 a.m. today if it meant working under the collective bargaining agreement that expired at midnight. This time, owners much more than players are at fault, if not wholly guilty, for the work stoppage.
This dispute, as ridiculous as it has been since the beginning, could last considerably longer than many have anticipated. The Winter Classic has been held up as a pressure point, and maybe it's true. Still, nobody should be shocked if owners hunker down for much longer or wipe out another hockey season.
Blame the owners if it lessens the sting, but know that culpability will be irrelevant in the end. The lockout isn't about right and wrong, fairness or public opinion. The players aren't going to meet every NHL demand, but owners are virtually certain to come away victorious because they have two things in abundance that players do not:
Time and money.
The average career for a professional player is about 250 NHL games over 5˝ seasons. Only a small percentage can bank the same money in Europe as they do in the NHL. Time is money, as they say. In the players' case, it's big money down the drain.
Take away an NHL salary for a year from a player, and it's gone for good. A few million bucks to Jeremy Jacobs, Ed Snider and Terry Pegula amounts to change in the ashtray. Ten million dollars is less than half of 1 percent of their total wealth.
Anyway, NHL owners can lose money for years and still gain on their investment when they sell the franchise. Tom Golisano pulled the Sabres from bankruptcy and walked away with more than $100 million seven years later when he sold the team. Heck, shutting down the season would equate to financial improvement for some teams.
This isn't to suggest owners should win by any means, only to predict that they will. Billionaires usually overcome millionaires. It's not right. It's not pretty. But it will remain true in this case unless players figure out how to make similar money in another league that can challenge the NHL.
Folks, that's not happening.
Years ago, fans became outraged over labor strife. Alienating them created pressure on both sides to reach an agreement. But there have been so many labor wars in sports over the past 20 years that fans have become immune. Let people know when it's over, and they'll return with wallets open.
The lockout didn't hurt the NHL in 2004-05. Fans came back in droves, revenues soared and the league became stronger than ever. The NHL had record revenues for seven straight seasons and last year was a $3.3 billion empire. Bettman isn't worried about losing his fan base this time around. He knows darned well they'll be back.
Bettman's latest proposal called for players receiving about 47 percent of revenues, down from 57 percent last season. Players want an actual dollar amount of $1.8 billion, their take from the pot last year, while refusing to accept a 17.5 percent rollback. Their divide isn't over math, as it was seven years ago.
It's a disagreement in principle. Owners want players to help assist troubled franchises. Players believe owners should pay the bill. It's a philosophical difference that's difficult to overcome when both sides are anchored to their positions. In that way, it's like arguments over politics or religion.
If it wasn't evident owners were prepared for a long layoff after their initial proposal, it was clear Saturday when they signed players hours before the expiration of the CBA. I'm not going to bore you by attempting to break down the minutia of hockey-related revenue, direct costs, Canadian labor laws and revenue sharing. Unless you're inside the meetings, it's impossible to decipher fact from fiction.
Owners are taking a hard-line approach. Why? Because they can. They have more money and therefore more leverage.
They're not chasing money in a traditional sense. Most of us want more money because it pays our bills. It buys us bigger homes, better cars and nicer clothes. Money allows us to afford better colleges or helps us retire early, so we can enjoy our money. Money doesn't have the same effect on owners.
For them, money isn't a necessity. It's a scoreboard. If the two sides were fighting over toothpicks, owners would be competing for the bigger pile. The NHL collected $3.3 billion in revenue last season, with 43 percent going to the league. Based on money alone, it was a big score. The players collected 57 percent.
And that's why owners want more. No, it's not fair. Hockey fans don't buy tickets to watch owners sit in their suites. They pay for players. Ultimately, it doesn't matter.
Before the last lockout, teams were spending 75 percent of revenue on payroll. Salaries were out of whack. The public, for what it was worth, agreed. Sentiment mostly leaned toward owners who for years were forced to write checks to cover massive losses. Even players acknowledged that adjustments were needed.
Bettman drew up the last CBA and effectively jammed it down the throats of the players' association. A salary cap tied directly to revenue was implemented along with a 24 percent salary rollback. In return, players accepted between 54 percent and 57 percent of revenue. They sheepishly returned a tired and broken group.
At the time, the salary cap drove negotiations. The salary rollback and revenue breakdown were little more than starting points after the CBA expired in seven years or less. The league would turn over new players. Owners would live to fight another day against a different opponent.
And that's what we have today.
Blame the owners. They became careless, as they always do. Some failed to pay players what they were worth, and others overpaid for them after they hit the market. Either way, it produced skyrocketing salaries. Nobody was responsible more than Golisano, the former Sabres owner who refused to pay Chris Drury and Daniel Briere.
Golisano, in an effort to keep payroll down, actually caused a surge in spending because he, or the people working under him, didn't understand the market value of the former co-captains. It contributed to both players, plus Thomas Vanek, getting overpaid. In Briere's case, it led to circumvention of the salary cap through front-loaded contracts.
See, it extended well beyond Buffalo.
Is that entirely Golisano's fault? No. Someone else, somewhere else, eventually would have triggered the similar results. But it also didn't help matters, a fact Golisano and Larry Quinn somehow failed to comprehend at the time.
Thirty players were scheduled to make $7 million or more this season. The average salary for the seven highest-paid players in the league - Shea Weber, Brad Richards, Tyler Myers, Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Ilya Kovalchuk and Vincent Lecavalier - is $11.85 million. Richards and Lecavalier are the only Stanley Cup winners among them.
Nobody can fault the players for taking that much dough, which is more than any are worth, when owners make big money available.
At the same time Bettman was pushing for term limits on contracts, two of his chief confidants, Jacobs and Snider, signed players to six-year deals. Why? Because they were still working under the agreement that expired at midnight Saturday. They did so because they could. And that's what we have today, too.
Blame the owners for the ridiculous contracts, for not showing restraint, for the eventual charade that Bettman and his cronies pass off as negotiations. The two sides have had numerous talks, but really they've exchanged demands. Most have come from owners in the face of players who have been reasonable.
Go ahead, blame the owners. The lockout is entirely their fault.
Once again, it doesn't matter. In the end, they'll win.