Were coming around the bend, and this is getting close to do-or-die time for the NHL.
What we do know: the NHL and NHLPA will be meeting on Wednesday and federal mediators will be involved with the discussion theyre hoping closes the narrow gap between the two sides on CBA length, contract term length and transition plans for the first few seasons under a lowered salary cap.
The meeting might take place in Chicago, or in Washington DC or even in a Tim Hortons within the shadows of the Bell Centre. It definitely wont be in New York City, and it will be away from the media in a quiet atmosphere where both sides can perhaps get some work done without whispers and leaks turning things Phoenix Coyote Ugly.
As one player said last week about a possible finished CBA leading to a 2012-13 NHL season, Ill believe it when I see it.
Thats the prevailing wisdom at this point for a group of NHL players that have been disappointed before in these 87 days of fruitless negotiations. They know that optimism should come along with a helmet and the gnarliest set of shoulder pads you've ever seen.
Things seemed to hit a major speed bump last week when Donald Fehr and Gary Bettman held dueling press conferences that will not be up for submission in the PR Hall of Fame. The NHL essentially said they were taking their ball and going home with the message delivered by an emotional Bettman. Bill Daly talked about things the NHL is willing to "die on the hill" for, and that's not something anybody wants to hear at this point.
But its expected the NHL will still have the 300 million make whole amount and the details from their final offer on the table a 10-year term for the new CBA and a five-year term limit for contracts that extends to seven years if a player is re-signing with his current team. The five percent variation from season-to-season also included, and a stipulation that any contracts bought out will remain on the salary cap.
As we wrote last week, the two sides are in the same zip code for the contract term length after the NHLPA offered a proposal capping it at an eight-year maximum. That's definitely shouting distance, and perhaps even "outside voice" distance.
Perhaps there is a happy medium where they can agree on a six-year term limit for contracts that will allow the NHL to conform to the seven-year limit insurance companies place on insured contracts. Every dues-paying NHL player that CSNNE.com has polled on CBA length has firmly been in favor of a 10-year deal, so that shouldn't be a stumbling block at the end of the day.
Players want labor peace for the rest of their careers, and know that an uninterrupted 10-year run is the only appropriate statement the NHL can make to fans, sponsors and advertisers in order to once again be trustworthy.
Thats what it should be about at this point in the negotiations. It shouldnt be about setting things up for the next showdown or letting personal animus get in the way of a potential deal. There's good reason for that: another egotistical snag in contract talks could spell the death of the season.
Time is short and the clock is ticking.
If the NHL and NHLPA come to an agreement this week then the league can run a short 7-10 day training camp with a 48-game regular season to begin in early January. It will certainly feature only inter-conference regular season games with as many as seven games against division rivals and two games against every other conference foe. On the plus side that means a lot of BruinsCanadiens games for the discerning local hockey fan.
But it also means a disproportionate number of trips to Buffalo in the dead of winter, and plenty of trips to the Buffalo Chop House for the Black and Gold.
All of these potential scenarios are dependent on Fehr and Bettman finalizing a deal in the next 7-14 days, however, and getting things started before Jan. 15. Most are expecting the season to start at the beginning of January, but we've all been disappointed before. All bets are off if one side misjudges the other one at this delicate juncture, and continues to play their hand with the stubborn carelessness that dominated October and November.
Fehr needs to finally move into closing mode and get the deal after dutifully pushing the NHL to negotiate against themselves over the last few months. The NHL offer kept improving when they forcefully warned it would keep getting worse, and Fehr deserves credit for helping soften the players' landing. Bettman needs to allow both sides to share credit in forging the new CBA, and pull the NHL out of their horrendous tailspin to pro sports oblivion. If the NHL owners continue on their mission to create a schism between Fehr and the players, then it could take a truly ugly turn that threatens the very fabric of the league.
If Bettman, Daly and the NHL owners can forgive some of the bad blood stirred up by three months of hard bargaining then a deal should be on the horizon. But the pressure is now on Fehr and Bettman to close things out in a negotiation that should be completed after a few hours of candid conversation. That's all it should take once both sides stop playing the CBA version of the Hunger Games.
It will be a fatal black mark on Bettmans career if theres a second NHL season cancelled during his tenure as league commissioner. The public sentiment will turn wildly against Fehr and the players if the whole thing blows up because players want an eight-year contract term limit. Both sides are keenly intelligent and PR savvy, and have to know this to be true.
Nobody wants to hear any more of the lies, the personal japes and the empty rhetoric that has become all too common in the CBA proceedings during a negotiation that many labor experts are labeling as both mystifying and embarrassing.
The only phrase anyone wants to hear is the deal is done and ding-dong the lockout is dead. If its anything less than that it should be Fehr and Bettman wearing the goat horns and shouldering the blame.
Lets just hope it doesnt get to that point because theyre just too close now to let it all fall apart.