LAS VEGAS – The 2012-13 NHL schedule is about to be released, likely on Thursday. But it will be more of a suggestion than a schedule. The league still can't say for certain where the Phoenix Coyotes will play next season, and no one can say for certain when the puck will drop because negotiations have yet to begin on a new labor agreement.
The league has to operate as if everything will work out. Hey, it might. And asterisks for Quebec City and a lockout would just look funny, anyway. But here we are on June 20, at the glitziest casino on the Las Vegas strip, honoring the game's best at the NHL Awards, and you wonder whether hockey in the desert is just a mirage and whether this $3.3-billion business is easy come, easy go.
The league has been trying to sell the franchise it bought out of bankruptcy. It has another potential owner in Greg Jamison, and he has a lease agreement for city-owned Jobing.com Arena with Glendale, Ariz. But that lease agreement is being challenged by the Goldwater Institute – a watchdog group that foiled an attempt at a deal last year, opposed to public money propping up the private purchase of a hockey team – and it remains to be seen whether Jamison has raised enough money from investors.
Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said when the schedule comes out, "there will be Phoenix Coyotes in Glendale, Arizona, absolutely." But all Daly is saying absolutely is that the Phoenix Coyotes will be on the schedule. It is not absolute that they will be on the ice again in Glendale, Arizona.
[Related: Referendum 'could essentially kill' Greg Jamison's bid to buy Coyotes from NHL]
Daly made a complicated mess sound pretty simple.
"They'll either be able to go forward with their lease agreement, or they won't," Daly said Tuesday night after the NHL board of governors meeting at the Wynn. "Jamison will either be able to secure his financing on the basis of that lease deal, or he won't."
And if not, then what?
"Well, then we have to explore what the alternatives are," Daly said.
The alternatives include the league running the team for a third straight season and relocating the franchise. Neither is appealing. The league doesn't want to keep running the team, and Glendale doesn't want to keep paying the NHL millions of dollars to do it with no guarantee that the Coyotes will stay. Relocation would be a rush job, unless the groundwork has been laid in secret, which the NHL insists it hasn't been.
The Atlanta Thrashers were sold and moved to Winnipeg last spring. But the announcement came May 31, and the buyers already had an NHL-ready rink and minor-league organizational infrastructure, allowing for a quick turnaround. The nickname "Jets" was unveiled at the draft.
There is no scenario quite like that this time. The draft begins Friday, and there will be no Nordiques, at least not yet. On how short of notice could the NHL move a team?
"You know what? We haven't gotten to that stage," Daly said. "We'll have to make those decisions when and if we have to make those decisions."
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Daly said during the Stanley Cup Final that he didn't think Jamison needed to find more investors, but he needed to secure his lease agreement before he could secure the investors he had already lined up.
A judge could rule the city council's approval of the lease agreement invalid. Even if that doesn't happen, citizens could call a referendum. What if that delays things? What if that creates enough uncertainty to scare off investors? We'll see.
"The Coyotes have been scheduled to play in Phoenix," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. "Our hope and expectation is that all of the efforts that have been worked on, or are continuing to be worked on, will come to fruition."
Scheduled. Hope. Expectation.
Those words don't sound good in connection with the Coyotes. They sound a little better in connection with collective bargaining.
Daly said the NHL and the NHL Players' Association have scheduled meetings. He declined to give times and places, and he didn't want to characterize them as the first formal bargaining sessions. But asked when the time would come to outline positions, he said: "In the near future."
The sides have been leading up to this slowly. First, the league said it was ready to negotiate while the union reorganized under new executive director Don Fehr. Then they exchanged information. Recently, they talked about how they were going to talk. The night before the Stanley Cup Final, Daly had dinner with Steve Fehr, Don's brother and the union's outside counsel.
It has been less quiet behind the scenes than it has been in public, by design. Both sides are well aware that the media and fans are on hair-trigger alert, looking for signs of Armageddon after a lockout wiped out the 2004-05 season. Both sides know it is in their best interest to keep the rhetoric to a minimum. Bettman threatens team executives with fines for speaking publicly about labor issues. Don Fehr has no such hammer, but he has the players organized. They will hold another meeting next week in Chicago, including the executive board and more players.
"There's preparation going on on both sides obviously," said St. Louis Blues captain David Backes. "You'd be dumb if you weren't [preparing]. But the fact that it's not spewed all over Twitter and social media and everywhere, I think that's a telltale sign that Don Fehr and the guys that are involved now have been able to keep everyone informed and telling them, 'Hey, it's for our best if we keep it quiet.' "
Talk to players, and you hear cautious optimism. Many say they expect a deal to get done, or at least that a lockout would be a shame. That makes sense, because they made huge concessions last time and are now basically content with the current agreement – and unlike last time, when the salary cap was introduced, the system probably won't be completely overhauled.
"I haven't heard anyone say, 'Let's scrap this thing and start with a blank sheet of paper,' " Backes said.
But cautious optimism, as well as doomsday negativity, is irrelevant at this point. Until the league and the union make hard proposals, no one will know where things really stand. The players might be less optimistic if the owners ask them to cut their percentage of revenue from 57 percent to, say, 48.
And until the current collective bargaining agreement expires Sept. 15 – or until the schedule is supposed to begin in early October – no one will know who is really willing to miss games for what.
"I believe it's going to get done," said Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. "I do believe it's going to get done. But again, anything can happen. Just like in any negotiation, it can be smooth, but also it can be a really tough one. We'll wait and see."
Where have we heard that before?
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