There doesn't need to be a lockout. At least there doesn't need to be a long one. At least in theory.
Unlike 2004-05, when the NHL canceled an entire season, the structure of the sport is not at stake. The players are not challenging the salary cap. The owners are not challenging guaranteed contracts. The players have offered to take less money, just not enough to satisfy the owners. The owners have offered to increase revenue sharing, just not enough to satisfy the players.
There are other issues, important ones. But when it comes to the core economics, the shut-down-the-game stuff, the sides are generally working inside the same system. This should be about negotiations, about numbers, about finding the levels both sides can accept.
Though the sides are far apart, there should be enough common ground for the NHL and the NHL Players' Association to compromise and reach a new collective bargaining agreement – or, bare minimum, for them to sit down and talk about it.
And that is what is so disappointing about this situation.
Here we are a little more than a week before the CBA expires on Sept. 15, and the sides haven't spoken formally since Friday. Though NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and NHLPA outside counsel Steve Fehr had dinner together Wednesday night in New York, that did not result in the scheduling of new talks.
The main sticking point at the moment: The owners want the players to take an immediate pay cut. The players are willing only to take less of a raise in the future.
"I think an important issue as articulated to us is, they're not willing to go backwards in absolute dollars," Daly said, "and certainly our last proposal suggested they make some concessions on absolute dollars."
NHLPA executive director Don Fehr said: "What the players have said, and what they believe is the appropriate way to conclude a contract, is to limit the player share increases to specific amounts over the next few years. We've suggested three, in order to give the league an opportunity to grow its way out of the problem. And if they can continue to generate revenues the way they have, and even if the average is far lower than what it was the last two years, then this will produce an awful lot of money for them. We think that's the best way to do it."
Unless this is just part of the dance, the sides saving their best for a last flurry before the deadline, a lockout seems inevitable on Sept. 16. We'll be left to wonder what the real pressure points will be: When the NHL starts canceling regular-season games? When the players start losing paychecks? When the lockout threatens NBC games or the Winter Classic? We'll be left to wonder why they couldn't get a deal done now.
The most ominous sign? The owners know how bad this looks. They sacrificed a season, broke the union, got the "cost- certainty" they wanted and forced the players to make major concessions, and now they're back for more because they say they need more money to cover their costs, asking the players to take a smaller slice of a smaller pie. They know commissioner Gary Bettman is the bad guy. They know the fans will be upset with the third lockout since 1994-95. They know sponsors and investors are wary to pump money into a league that might not be playing. And yet they still think a lockout would be in their best interest.
"I guess it suggests the legitimacy of our position in the sense that none of those things are good, right?" Daly said. "It's not good to alienate a fan base. It's not good not to be playing hockey. It's not good for our business going forward. It clearly does damage to our business. So if we're prepared to do all those things and suffer all those consequences, we must have a pretty significant problem we need to address. And that's what I would suggest the message should be."
It's easy to question the legitimacy of the league's position. The league trumpets that it generates $3.3 billion in revenue, then quietly claims it is losing money? How is it losing money? Who specifically is losing money? Why? You can question the league's accounting. You can question the league's management.
But it doesn't really matter whether the owners are doing this because they need to, because they want to or just because they can. You don't get what you deserve; you get what you negotiate. It's all about leverage. And the union now wonders privately whether it surrendered some leverage by trying to make a deal.
It's no surprise that the owners are asking the players to take far less than 57 percent of hockey-related revenue, and it's no surprise that they want to make other changes, like limiting contract lengths. All that has been speculated for a long time.
The surprise is the union's position. As soon as the players hired Fehr as executive director, the question was how he would react. Would he insist on keeping the 57 percent? Would he fight the salary cap, as he did as the longtime leader of the Major League Baseball Players Association? Would he try to institute a luxury tax and a new revenue-sharing system?
Fehr has not insisted on the 57 percent. Fehr has not fought the salary cap or tried to institute a luxury tax. Fehr has tried to institute a new revenue-sharing system, but that is not exactly a radical idea.
This is a league of haves and have-nots. It relies on locally generated revenue, and that revenue varies widely from market to market. The owners have offered to increase the amount of revenue sharing themselves. The difference is that Fehr has proposed that they share more money and that they use a different way to target it to the teams that need it.
Though the union says the sides have significant differences on that issue, the league says they do not. The NHL is at $190 million, the NHLPA at $240 million. The distribution process is negotiable, or should be. This is a gap that could be bridged.
Yet Fehr's proposal has not generated much negotiation.
"I certainly hoped that it would have, and I certainly hope that it eventually will, but to date it has not," Fehr said. "And that's unfortunate."
Did Fehr show weakness by trying to make a deal, when he could have taken a harder line? Did that encourage the owners to stay on a hard line, knowing the lockout of 2004-05 resulted in major concessions from the players and didn't drive away the fans? And where does that leave Fehr now? Does he have to stay strong? Does that mean there will be a lockout and that it could drag on?
We're about to find out.
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