NHL lockout: The delicate danger of a drop-dead date to cancel the 2012-13 season

Nicholas J Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

Set a date. Take a vote.

I wish it were that simple. I really do. If you care about hockey – and no matter what you say, if you clicked on this, you still care – you want the NHL lockout to end. You wanted it to end yesterday, or last month, or two months ago. You never wanted it to start in the first place. I understand. Me, too.

We want certainty. We want closure. We want a deal. If your job is connected to the NHL directly or indirectly, your livelihood could depend on it. And if you're a fan – especially if you're still a fan now, despite all of this garbage – you have every right to demand it. Your emotional and financial investment is what fuels this business. Without it, they have nothing to fight over. They risk it as they fight over it.

But as infuriating and frustrating as it is, remember that this isn't about making a deal, any deal, for the NHL and the NHL Players' Association. This is about each side trying to cut the best deal for itself – the owners forcing concessions, the players mitigating losses. This is about franchise values and profit margins and career earnings and job security. And so they are going to keep staring at each other until they truly believe it doesn't make sense anymore.

You can argue that they're getting to that point, or at that point, or past it. I have. I see a deal, or at least the path to one. I think it could get done relatively soon if at least one side is motivated enough. I think it should get done before the season is canceled, because based on where the sides' proposals were last week, they're too close for either side to make that sacrifice.

But this is high-stakes poker or low-speed chicken, and it won't be over until it's over. The closer they get to the brink of cancellation, the more delicate the situation becomes. One false move, one mistake, could be costly. You can't force the brink to come before its time, and it's just not time yet.

When is the time? We have a pretty good idea.

Commissioner Gary Bettman said last week he couldn't imagine wanting to play fewer than 48 games. That means this is like 1994-95, when the sides came to an agreement and dropped the puck in January, and this not like 2004-05, when the league waited until Feb. 16 to scuttle the season.

The league wants more i's dotted and t's crossed than in '94-95, when the sides signed a memorandum of understanding and the league felt the final collective bargaining agreement didn't come out exactly how it wanted.

We're probably looking at mid-January at the latest – a month from now, as excruciating as that sounds – but we don't know for sure. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in an email Thursday that a drop-dead date has "never been considered."

Here is why it doesn't make sense to announce a drop-dead date now: It would confirm what the NHLPA has suspected – that the owners have had a "date" in mind all along – and it would give the league no flexibility.

NHLPA executive director Don Fehr would negotiate to the deadline, and if he feels it is artificial, past it. At best, it causes further delay. At worst, the league is forced to follow through on its threat or lose whatever credibility it has left in bargaining. If this ends up in court, the players can argue the owners bargained in bad faith, using the lockout as a strategy of first resort, trying to squeeze them to a certain point, no matter what.

Fehr's challenge is to sort through the uncertainty and mixed signals – teams quietly preparing to start, the league playing hardball – and determine when the owners really and truly have made their best offer. That's what the players hired him to do.

You can argue he already has overplayed his hand. The NHL pulled its last offer off the table – $300 million in "make-whole" or transition payments gone, among other things. It is holding firm in three key areas – contract lengths/structure, the length of the CBA, compliance buyouts/escrow caps. If the league keeps some or all of that offer off the table, the owners' best offer will have come and gone.

But the league has bluffed before, and obviously Fehr doesn't buy it. If he did, the sides at least would be wrapping this up so the players could vote. He must feel that offer isn't off the table and the owners have some wiggle room in those areas – or that the players simply won't accept those terms and are prepared for the alternative.

Why not take a vote now?

There is nothing to vote on yet. The league has won major concessions – a 50-50 split of hockey-related revenue and no guaranteed players' share, plus the concepts of maximum contract lengths, flatter contract structures and a long-term CBA – and the union feels the owners are just grinding the players for the last bits of dust. They doubt the owners are willing to cancel the season over what's left, and if they are right, why would they give up more when they already have given up so much? These issues should be far more important to them than to the owners, who will be guaranteed never to spend more as a group than the amount they wanted after a transition period, no matter how player contracts are done.

Individual players are itching to get back on the ice. Some no doubt would vote for the league's proposal as is. But it's hard to say how many from the outside, and say what you want about Fehr, he knows what his job is. It's to listen to the players. It's to get the best deal he can for them. It's to make a recommendation but ultimately to leave it up to them. It's not to serve his own agenda, as some fear he is doing.

Just a guess: Fehr pushes back until he truly feels the owners have made their best offer. Then he presents the players with their options – take the deal or dissolve the union, file antitrust suits and go boldly into the unknown. Even if he doesn't like the deal and the players accept it, he accepts that – the way his mentor, Marvin Miller, did when baseball players went on strike in 1972 against his specific recommendation to the contrary.

"You can basically on every major issue at every time take a pulse and look for a consensus," said Fehr Saturday in a speech to the Canadian Auto Workers. "And I learned a long, long time ago from Marvin Miller that in the end, if you really don't have any idea what to recommend, or none of the choices are good, or none of the options appear to be tremendously better than the others, what you do is you trust your membership, because they'll tell you what the right thing to do is. All you have to do is make sure they know what the issues are and involve them enough so that they understand the context.

"And so, if there's any message that I can pass on to you, it would probably be just to reaffirm that which you already know, which is: If you trust your members and you tell them the truth and you involve them in the process, you'll get about as far as it's possible to go. You can't ask for more."

Another guess: The owners are betting the players won't dissolve the union. The owners think the players will blink in the end.

So that's where we are – the players doubting the owners will cancel the season over this, the owners doubting the players will dissolve the union over this, still playing their dangerous game, so close, yet so far away.

And as always, all the rest of us can do is wait.

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