After five months, the obvious becomes official

I know this will come as a shock to you, but the NHL owners couldn't even figure out the right time or way to blow up their product.

What they should have done, frankly, is trot commissioner Gary Bettman out to make the season-canceling announcement at the precise moment of the opening kickoff of the Super Bowl or the 199th lap at Daytona. That way, they could have gotten the exact audience they deserved.

The announcement, after all, was the perfect anticlimax to the perfect shame. The owners wanted something they (a) couldn't get and (b) didn't deserve, and spent the past 20 weeks trying to cram the square peg into union head Bob Goodenow's left eye.

They did this because they didn't want a better deal. They wanted Goodenow's head in a bowling bag, and the players back in their pre-union negotiating stance -- bent over a table like Kevin Bacon in "Animal House" and chanting, "Thank you, sir, may I have another?"

They knew this would mean canceling a season, and maybe even two, but they had a point to prove, namely, that it's 1955 again.

What they proved, of course, is that it doesn't take a lot to persuade people to stop giving a damn.

The NHL lockout seized the public's imagination only to the extent that a 12-car pileup on the interstate caused by a monkey driving an RV would -- with people whistling in admiration, "Man, that's pretty stupid."

But unlike the monkey on the road, this stopped being entertaining pretty early on because the endgame was so obvious to all but the lowest wattage bulbs in the box. When the first game of the season was canceled, the other 1,229 were canceled right along with it.

Is the union blameless here? Probably not. By all accounts, Goodenow could give a migraine to a lawn jockey. Still, his contributions to saving (if that's what you can call it) the season were to offer a 24 percent salary rebate, coming off his no-cap-ever stance, and offering himself up for career suicide.

And is management utterly evil? No, although their givebacks have been harder to find. They came off linkage, which isn't the same as a sacrifice for the good of the game, and they eased up their semi-last drop-dead offer up a couple of million bucks to their last drop-dead offer.

But neither side could help but negotiate with its middle fingers, in public, where the only thing that could be accomplished was decades of white-hot hatred.

Which is, after all, what we all hoped would come out of this embarrassing process.

Ultimately, the central fact remains that the owners were the ones who padlocked the doors. They were the ones who offered the contracts the players accepted in the first place. They were the ones who played hardball because they sat in the same room with each other breathing their own air over and over and convincing themselves that this is how coal mine operators would have done it in the '20s.

In other words, if you believe in a sliding scale of guilt, Bettman and the owners put their needle into the red, and did it with malice aforethought.

Anybody could have seen how this would end up. People were predicting this last winter, for God's sake. It was the Dr. Seuss mystery novel in slow motion.

The backlash nobody saw, though, was that so few customers would be troubled by the lockout. The audience aggressively declined to care about the work stoppage or anyone involved in it. People took their money and went home without a complaint. No picket lines around arenas, no parents holding up young children holding signs saying, "Give Us Back Our Penalty Killers," nothing.

The game vanished from our notice so quickly that there wasn't even time to put Steve Yzerman's face on a milk carton.

But the owners had their plan, and they sent Bettman out to fulfill his duty. They gambled the sport's place at the low end of the Big Four (with football, basketball and baseball), and now have successfully repositioned it below Arena Football and slightly above indoor lacrosse.

Now that's the kind of diabolical cleverness that gave us the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

In fairness, though, now we don't have to spend any more energy asking the musical question, "What's keeping them?" Now we can take a quick peek over at them at the start of next season to see if they've shown any independent motor control, and if that doesn't happen, then we can check with them the year after.

We, like them, have nothing but time.

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