“Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”

An essentially contrite slang tagline, mostly because it’s even entered my arsenal, I got to thinking yesterday upon reading Matt’s piece castigating the ownership in the NHL for instigating and prolonging yet another work stoppage. We always hear that there are at least two sides to every story. So here’s another perspective on the lockout – not necesarily in contrast to the aforementioned piece, but to hold in your mind before we assign blame out of our frustration.

First, let me start with some preliminary assertions of my own:

- 1. Whether you choose to blame the owners or the players for this lockout, there is one entity suffering here who has exactly 0% share of the blame: the fans. Fans have stayed loyal through two work stoppages (about the same number as all 3 of the other major sports combined, in this time period) and are in the midst of a depressing third. There is no debating who the real victim is here.

- 2. I have tried and continue to try not to blame either individuals or entities that tend to be driving the lockout. Some say it’s Bettman. Some say it’s owners. Some say it’s specifically large-market owners. Some say it’s Fehr. Some say it’s Daly. Whoever it is, see point #1.

- 3. At the end of the day, when this collective bargaining agreement is reached and the issue is resolved, we (like all sports fans) will be forced to have a quick memory. The die hard fans are beyond having their “hearts broken” as it were, but we all know that we’ll still watch hockey and contribute to the revenue stream that these higher-ups are fighting over. That’s just the way it is. The casual fans will leave, but they’ll either be back, or they won’t. We know that, the players know that, and the owners know that. Is that shameful? Yes. Is it true? Likely.

Bearing these things in mind, let me flip the prior adage on its head.

“Hate the players, and hate the game.”

I don’t mean for you to hate the game of hockey. I mean for you to hate the game of “negotiations.” I use that term incredibly loosely, as it appears no real face-to-face give-and-take negotations have truly happened. It’s a game of “let’s see what you bring” from each side happening behind closed doors. Naturally, each side just shoots the other’s down because none of the “concessions” being made are being made with the opposing party’s say at top of mind in the “negotiation” room. The proposals are not happening in each other’s company, but are doomed due to the tunnel vision of working with a side of like interests.

The word impasse might be the dirtiest word ever. I’ve never liked French class.

Trust me on this, though, the outcome is not in doubt. We know which side will eventually win, and when we think about things in the following way, I think you might just agree.

The past two lockouts have eventually ended with the game of hockey “revitalized” and back “stronger than ever,” but the rousing winner in every labor dispute has been the owners. It’s a numbers game much more than it’s a negotiations game.

There are 30 owner-entities in the league. I say this because some teams are jointly owned/operated. Bill Daly speaks on behalf of the owners after meeting with all or the bulk of them in private. He is a representative, but not in the same way that Don Fehr is a representative. The number of people in the owners’ meetings with Daly falls short of 50, and they represent themselves and only themselves. Naturally, and as Matt has pointed out, that seems to be all they care about as well.

My point here is that the players’ contingency is in the thousands. Their union needs to have representatives, because the sheer number of players affected by the bargaining agreement cannot possibly all have their individual say in nearly the same way that the owners do. It’s just not possible.

This isn’t to say that the Players have failed to choose adequate representation. I mean, Craig Adams has an Economics degree from Harvard. It is, however, to say that the representative system, when squaring off against an entity not relegated to using it, like the owners, is fundamentally flawed. Obviously, it will be (and has been) much easier for the smaller group (the owners) to remain cohesive and united around the points from which they will not budge in these “negotiations.”

But it’s even more than that. These negotiations boil down to the one thing that everything always boils down to: money.

And that’s perhaps the biggest reason why I know the owners will “win” again.

Look at it this way. You’re Ben Lovejoy. You’re on a one-way contract, so you’re currently out of work. If your representatives for the players association get you a deal, you’ll be making a pro-rated $525,000. And you don’t know where you’ll be working at the end of next year, season or no season.

Scenario 2. You’re Shea Weber. No surprise that you’re also on a one-way deal. But you’re also out of work. However, you’re slated to make $14,000,000 this year. And you’re locked up for quite a number of years after this one, season or no season.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d take either of those two salaries from my side of the desk. However, when you look at the disparity in the amount that players make in addition to how many players are on the hook for a CBA, it’s no wonder that the smaller group of owners whose pockets are already lined have little trouble “winning” the “negotiations” even with someone like Don Fehr trying to get them what they want.

How can a player making $14 million have the same interests as one making $525,000? How can a player who knows he’s got 15 years in the league ahead have the same interests as a guy fighting to make a roster for the next 15 games?

Sure, the owners in the league are in different financial leagues, and perhaps their salary differs even more than the $13.5 million in my example. But, as Matt said in his article, they’re much more equipped to deal with this lockout and take the hit financially. And that’s what we’re seeing now, and that’s part of why the posturing won’t end.

The players that stand to lose more money in their “guaranteed contracts” don’t stand to lose nearly as much as the guys whose careers are coming to a close, or those whose status in the league may mean they lose not only their paychecks for this year, but their hockey livelihood.

The owners know that the perpetuation of the lockout will result in further dissolution between the players, for sheer numbers (in their population and in their currently nonexistent paychecks). They can’t lose this one.

We read quotes from Sidney Crosby regarding fading optimism about getting a deal done, then turn to Twitter and see Dave Bolland retweeting a fan who wanted Bettman dead. The players are simply too large in number and too dissolute in interests to unite and form the kind of block that the owners have done. They also don’t have the same amount of practice that these long-tenured owners have gained in working through 3 lockouts.

So, to me, the question of “Who’s to blame?” is essentially irrelevant. Because both sides are to blame, for different reasons and to different extents. But as far as I see it, the outcome’s not one that’s in doubt. It’s just a matter of how much hockey we have to lose before we get there.

The owners and players will continue this game, rather than the game of hockey, until we reach its end. And until we reach that end, we all lose.