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Montreal Canadiens' Francis Bouillon arrives for an informal training session at the Canadiens' training facility in Brossard, Que., Monday, September 17, 2012 on day two of the NHL lockout. (The Canadian Press)

Montreal Canadiens' Francis Bouillon arrives for an informal training session at the Canadiens' training facility in Brossard, Que., Monday, September 17, 2012 on day two of the NHL lockout.

(The Canadian Press)

Analysis: The most unnecessary lockout of them all Add to ...

Now that Gary Bettman and the NHL owners marked their irrelevant deadline by locking out the players on Saturday, all eyes turn to the next step.

Well, the league already took the next step with that ridiculous statement it issued following the lockout but more on that in a minute.

The really big next step, one that actually produces progress, is going to take some time. After all, the great deadline of Sept. 15 declared by the NHL commissioner only marked the expiry of the collective agreement, not the start of the season or even the start of training camps. No one in this mess will be inclined to get serious about labour negotiations until pay cheques and gate receipts are missed, which is almost four weeks away.

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There is no reason for NHL Players' Association executive director Donald Fehr and the players to do anything right now. They know they have the moral high ground and are, for a change, winning the public relations battle. And the league is doing nothing except shooting itself in both feet right now with Sunday's statement as Exhibit A.

First of all, the NHL seems to be the only business in the world that thinks the expiry of a labour agreement means business must cease. This is the fourth time since 1992 the league ceased operations due to a labour dispute and it is the third time the owners locked out the players, all three of them coming on Gary Bettman's watch.

Where every other business carries on operations while a new labour agreement is being negotiated, with both labour and management rightly regarding a strike or lockout as the absolute last resort, Bettman and his chief labour strategist, outside counsel Bob Batterman, rush to lock the doors. As Ansar Khan of MichiganLive.com noted, the NHL has now lost 1,698 regular-season games due to labour disputes since 1992. That is more than Major League Baseball (938), the NBA (504) and the NFL (0) combined.

This is the most unnecessary lockout of them all. It is not about fighting for a new way of doing business like the last one. It is merely about how to slice up a billion-dollar pie.

Funny thing, though. You might think with all that practice Bettman and the owners would be a little smoother at trying to pull the wool over the fans' eyes. It was bad enough they spent the months leading up to the lockout bragging about record revenues in the seven years since the last lockout that saw the NHL grow from a $2.1-billion (all currency U.S.) business to a $3.3-billion one only to plead poverty a few days later. Not only that, one of the guys at the table demanding the players take a 24-per-cent pay cut because the salary cap system they demanded and won after an entire season was lost in 2004-05 is now not working, Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold, was fresh from signing two good but not great players to 13-year contracts worth $98-million each.

No, only these guys could compound that with the statement the league issued Sunday after it locked out the players: "This is a time of year for all attention to be focused on the ice, not on a meeting room. The league, the clubs and the players all have a stake in resolving our bargaining issues appropriately and getting the puck dropped as soon as possible. We owe it to each other, to the game and, most of all, to the fans."

Yes, that really was issued by the NHL public-relations department. It did not come from The Onion or any other satirical outlet.

No, the NHL owners really aren't that stupid. They're just not afraid of the fans. They don't even respect them. In their eyes, the fans are simply ATMs with arms and legs. They came back last time, the owners believe, and they'll come back this time, once we've rooted through the players' pockets for every nickel.

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