Putting off the never-ending summer

The news that NHL owners have decided they can do better financially by not playing games next year comes as no surprise to anyone who understands the bloodsport that is the upcoming lockout.

In fact, this next year figures to be every bit as ugly as the Todd Bertuzzi incident, if only because its damage will be felt long after Steve Moore heals.

But as Eric Idle said as he was being crucified at the end of "Monty Python's Life Of Brian," "Always look on the bright side of life."

The bright side? Easy. This will almost surely be the best Stanley Cup playoffs ever.

It will have to be, if the players have even one-fifth the pride they say they do. This could be their last hockey for years, if some of the older and scalier owners get their way.

We must, of course, understand how good the Stanley Cup playoffs are under normal circumstances. The players give their all each night, leaving nothing for that weekend game in Chicago because there is no weekend game in Chicago. Their effort alone is typically jaw-dropping stuff.

But next year is gone, and anyone who has been paying attention at all knows it. The players' union is determined not to fall under the oppressive yoke of the salary cap, seeing how unfair it is to NFL players who are cut just because their teams don't feel like keeping their word about their contracts.

And the owners? They want Bob Goodenow put on a spit, apple in his mouth and spinning slowly over a saute pan.

These would seem to be diametrically opposed negotiating stands, especially when it comes to Goodenow being speared yap to hinder by a pole vault and turned into the blue plate special.

Thus, we expect nothing from either side except at least a year of posturing and fist-shaking, and the damage to a game that is hardly the stuff of a Golden Globe nomination as it is. It will be devastating.

Hey, if you don't believe it, ask the baseball owners if they'd do 1994 all over again.

Thus, the playoffs, which start Wednesday, are the only thing keeping the players from being non-players, which would suggest that each player would want to ply his trade as long as possible.

And the best reason for this kind of devotion to duty is this question, which will be asked 20 times multiplied by 16 teams, just as it has been asked 20 times by the 14 teams that didn't make it:

"So now that your season's over, how do you intend to while away your time on strike? And by the way, what's your picketing assignment?"

The sheer irritation of that kind of impertinence would cause anyone to sell out on a penalty kill, no matter how old, slow, rich, uninvolved or just confused.

And imagine how those seventh games will play out. You cannot possibly make up how much effort will be expended on behalf of holding off the long, cold summer, whether that summer involves hay baling, golf, quality time with the kids, or most frightening of all, hockey in Switzerland for $200 per game.

This is your money's worth in spades, dear customers, as good as it may ever get in this or any other sport.

Yes, that includes the Olympics, especially the Summer Games in Athens, where athletes will be performing while looking over their shoulders because of security concerns, either founded or not.

Even this weekend, with St. Louis, Nashville and Edmonton all tied for the last two Western Conference spots, was fabulous. In fact, the Nashville-St. Louis game Saturday was an enormous thing, given the context. If the attendance was one less than 17,113, which is capacity, it would have been the end of hope for hockey in Tennessee.

Which whould have put the Preds one step up on everyone else.

Next year is going to be what scientists like to call a king-hell bitch.

And cold, too.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com