Word Games: Searching For The Truth In The NHL Lockout

By Wayne Whittaker, Boston Bruins Correspondent

If you happen to be in a particularly masochistic mood, take a look at the comment section of any NHL press release announcing the cancellation of another block of games throughout this lockout. You’ll likely find dozens of pleas from fans to “cancel the season already”, generally sandwiched between a series of expletives.

This is a common sentiment throughout some facets of the hockey community. But much like the negotiation tactics of the league and players union, these comments fail to sound completely convincing. Instead, this rhetoric is just like the political posturing we’ve all grown accustomed to over the last few months- as if feigning disinterest will scare Bettman and Fehr into an agreement.

Clearly, it won’t.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (cr: VancityAllie@flickr)

However, it does bring up an interesting point, albeit indirectly. At what point is the 2012-2013 NHL season no longer worth saving? When the initial season scraping speculation began presenting itself in early October, the reports were obviously premature. Even as the calendar days ticked off of November, there was plenty of optimism that this lockout could be relegated to an asterisk in the history books. But suddenly, the window seems to be closing quite rapidly.

With the tone of negotiations suddenly sounding as dark as they ever have, just one day after a deal seemed imminent, when do both sides throw up their hands and decide to start fresh in the summer?

Short answer: no time soon.

As disheartening as the latest news of a “breakdown in communications” is, as Winnipeg Jets defenseman Ron Hainsey put it, the calendar is still on the league’s side. With no “drop dead” date on the table, there is still time for a new CBA to present itself.

In the shortened season of 1994-1995, the puck finally dropped on January 20. The league operated under a 48 game schedule, and as time continues to move on it’s likely we’d be looking at something similar should the two sides come to an agreement.

Sure, things don’t look good at the moment. But as yesterday’s whirlwind of insanity proved, things can (and will) change, sometimes at an alarming pace. The owners claim that certain aspects of their recently proposed CBA are now off the table, but this has happened earlier in the negotiations as well, only to have them magically reappear somewhere down the line.

Lest we forget that Bettman said the September 15 offer was the best the NHLPA would receive. The offers have, of course, continued and have crawled closer to where the NHLPA wants them to be.

The owners and players will now take a few days off, let emotions settle, and then they will return to negotiating. Donald Fehr is not stupid, he knows what needs to be done, as does Gary Bettman. There will be a deal. I remain optimistic the season will be saved, and this whole lockout will be in the rear view mirror by New Year’s Day.

The two sides are close. Was Donald Fehr’s press conference last night a PR ploy by the union? Absolutely. But it wasn’t a complete fabrication. The sides are finally speaking the same language, and the end goal is in sight. It’s almost inconceivable to believe player contract terms will be what blows up the 2012-2013 NHL season. Yet, here we are.

In the near future, more games will be cancelled. The league may announce a “drop dead” date, which will then trigger another string of marathon sessions between the NHL and NHLPA. There will be more reports that a deal is very close to getting done, and other “sources” may say the two sides are drawing their weapons and taking hostages. Ignore it all. Clearly, no one knows what is going on.

As much as we want to follow these negotiations in real-time, that’s an impossibility. There will be good days and bad days, just as there’s always been. But no matter what public spin or scare-tactics the two sides are manufacturing, the reality is we’re now in the final stages of negotiations. Either an agreement will be made in the near future, or the season will be cancelled.

Given the recent progress, I would opt to say a new CBA will be agreed upon in time to salvage something resembling a season. But another question is whether or not the fans feel there’s any reason for the season to be saved. If we’re to take their comments at face value, they do not. But just like Bettman and Fehr, fans are trying their best to alter the perception of the other side.

It’s impossible to judge just how much damage this lockout has already done to the league. Once again the NHL is providing the sports world with reasons to laugh at professional hockey. Should we forego the melodrama, and return to the ice soon, the 2012 lockout could eventually be nothing more than an asterisk next to a Stanley Cup Champions team name.

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