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NHL sets soft deadline for final lockout showdown with latest cancellation of games

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

We wanted openers. Now we want closure. And that's why Thursday's announcement – the ninth cancellation of this lockout – was actually welcome news to those of us who still care about the NHL.

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Gary Bettman has suggested a 48-game season is the lowest the NHL will go. (Reuters)

At least we'll know soon.

The NHL canceled the schedule through Jan. 14, and that means the NHL and the NHL Players' Association now face a soft deadline for the cancellation of the 2012-13 – oops, the 2013 – season.

Commissioner Gary Bettman has said he "can't imagine wanting to play fewer" than 48 games, as the NHL did during the 1994-95 – oops, the 1995 – season when it dropped the puck in January. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly has said this needs to end around mid-January.

So there you go. If you believe Bettman and Daly, we're not at the brink yet, but we can see it from here.

The legal maneuvering has begun – the preemptive strike by the NHL last week, the threat of a disclaimer of interest by the NHLPA looming. But the only hope for the season lies at the bargaining table. The only hope is that they have been waiting for the last moment to make their last moves.

You can't fake that last moment. It has to be real. And now, finally, it looks like it's coming.

Either they will figure this out, or they won't. Either we'll have an every-game-matters, sprint-from-start-to-finish season, or we'll move on. Either the league will have a chance to recover relatively quickly, or it will fall into the abyss.

Their choice.

Now, to be clear, this is not a "drop-dead date." This is not a hard deadline. The NHL does not necessarily have to open on Jan. 15 to play this season. At this point, canceling the schedule is largely symbolic, because the schedule will have to be redone anyway.

The NHL would be unwise to give a drop-dead date for a couple of reasons:

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The NHL hasn't declared a drop-dead date as it would give the players' union leverage in bargaining. (AP)

One, it would confirm the NHLPA's suspicion that the NHL has had a date in mind all along – something the NHL has denied repeatedly – and give union boss Donald Fehr something to negotiate toward.

Two, it would leave the NHL no flexibility. If Fehr felt the deadline were artificial, he might go past it. What then? The NHL would be forced to follow through or lose whatever credibility it has left. And even if the sides reached a deal in principle, it wouldn't be that simple.

The sides would have to tie up the loose ends while recalling players from all over the world and staging quick training camps, and the NHL would want to tie up any and all loose ends tightly.

The league felt burned in 1995, when the sides reached a deal, signed a memorandum of understanding and started playing. The final document did not come out the way the league wanted. The league will not let that happen again.

If and when the sides agree on the main points, they probably will need about another week to draft a summary document with a series of attachments in precise language. Should anyone assume that will go smoothly?

Here is your timeline:

The players will finish voting Friday whether to give their executive board the power to disclaim interest. The board will have until Jan. 2 to decide. Regardless of what the NHLPA does, the sides can negotiate.

No talks are scheduled. The sides have about a month at most to come together and compromise. If they don't, based on what Bettman and Daly have said, the season will be canceled. The sides will fight in court. The outcome will be uncertain, the damage untold.

Why should anyone – starting with the NHLPA – buy that mid-January is even a soft deadline? Hasn't the NHL set false deadline after false deadline before? Weren't there only 26 teams in the NHL in 1995, and doesn't it change the math that there are 30 teams now? Didn't the league wait until Feb. 16 to cancel the 2004-05 season? Wasn't there an attempt to save that season even after it was canceled?

Sure, the NHL could reconsider. It could play less than 48 games. It could even decide that, say, a 28-game season, the last idea it kicked around in 2004-05, might be better than nothing.

But it shouldn't.

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A shortened season has a chance to be a thrilling ride from start to finish. (Reuters)

A 48-game season actually could be awesome. It would be a thrill ride that runs right into the best part of the year – the playoffs. Who has a hot goalie? Who's in shape? Who's sharp?

Cut the season by almost half, and the anything-can-happen factor would pretty much double. The NHL might generate a fair amount of revenue and win back fans quicker than you think. People have short memories.

Anywhere you draw the line is arbitrary. But 1995 set a precedent for 48 games, and go shorter than 42 games – the lowest even number that isn't less than half of a schedule, a number that allows each team to play three games against every conference opponent – and the season wouldn't feel like a season anymore. It wouldn't feel like a regulation race; it would feel like a drag race with funny cars. It would feel like a gimmick, a mockery.

The league would be more of a laughingstock than it already is.

"When we get to the point that we can't play a season with integrity, with a representative schedule, then we'll be done," said Bettman on Dec. 6.

Tired of saying it: There is a deal to be made. Forget how we got here – the NHL insulting the players with its first offer, the NHLPA frustrating the owners with its stalling and alternative proposals – and look at where we are now.

The NHLPA is negotiating off the NHL's framework. The players have accepted 50 percent of hockey-related revenue – the crown jewel of this negotiation, and the amount the owners targeted from the beginning – after a transition period. They have accepted concepts like term limits on contracts and restrictions to prevent back-diving deals. They have accepted the idea of a long-term labor agreement.

There are still gaps, but they are not unbridgeable. The NHL needs to restore its offer of $300 million in "make-whole" or transition payments, and the NHLPA needs to drop non-starters like escrow caps and agree to a 10-year CBA with an out after eight years. Then the sides need to compromise on how long to limit contracts, how much salaries can vary from year to year, how to set the salary range and more.

It won't be easy, but it's not that hard. Again, there is too little left to gain for anyone and too much to lose for everyone. This needs to get done.

Realistically, maybe this needed to get to this point – because of the background of the NHL and NHLPA, which already have lost almost two seasons' worth of games over the last three negotiations; and because of the backgrounds of Bettman and Fehr, smart, tough, accomplished negotiators who are so evenly matched overtime was inevitable.

Well, here we are. We're entering OT. Though we don't know exactly how much time is on the clock, it sure sounds like the clock is ticking. It sure feels like sudden death.

Up to you, boys. Put us back in the seats, or put us out of our misery.

Please.

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