Where do CBA talks go as mediation fails?

Well, let’s be real, few of us thought mediation was going to work anyway.

The real question now is where the NHL and NHL Players’ Association go from here after mediation sessions in Woodbridge, N.J., were unable to unglue entrenched positions.

Well, Gary Bettman's offering to bench himself is some kind of curveball, eh?

The news wasn’t 90 minutes old that mediation had failed to bring any progress in NHL labor talks when word surfaced that the NHL commissioner offered Thursday to NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr to have owners and players only in the next bargaining session (whenever that is) -- no league or union brass or staff.

I’ll say this for the commissioner, this one caught everyone off guard.

"We want to find a way to get to a deal," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN.com via email Thursday evening, explaining the surprise offer. "Nothing else has worked. The commissioner felt that we might as well propose something different. We will see how they respond."

An NHLPA source confirmed the union was contemplating the offer, which should not be confused with definitely accepting it.

So if you’re the PA, what do you do here?

On the one hand, players have long ago and predictably tired of Bettman -- name-calling and all -- so the opportunity to see him removed from the bargaining room seems like an offer too good to resist.

On the flip side, some people were quick to argue on Twitter on Thursday night that the NHL has always wanted to find a way to split Fehr away from the players, so perhaps this was a chance to do it?

I’m not sure I buy that, but certainly you can make the case the NHL has long been concerned in this process that it hasn’t been able to properly get its message directly across to the rank and file players. So this would certainly present that chance.

If I’m in the NHLPA, I'd agree on doing this only if all 30 owners are invited to join if they so choose, as my ESPN colleague Katie Strang suggested Thursday night.

I’d go further. I’d request that Jeremy Jacobs also join Bettman on the bench. Whether or not the kind of vitriol the players have for the Boston Bruins' owner is justified on all levels, the fact remains that he has come to represent all that is wrong with NHL ownership in the eyes of players. Get him out of the room.

Let’s get some fresh voices with a fresh approach. At this point, the process requires it.

A source said the NHLPA will hold another internal players’ call Friday with the executive board and negotiation committee, at which point you can fully expect the league’s offer to bench brass and staff from the next meeting will be debated and discussed, among other topics.

In the meantime, now that mediation has been checked off the list, you have to believe union decertification (or disclaimer of interest) is becoming more and more a possibility for the players, even if they know they risk just as much as the owners with that nuclear option. Still, despite the possible pitfalls of decertification, it’s the kind of thing that seemed to push a deal through in the NBA labor impasse a year ago.

Thing is, you have to understand that if the NHL calls your bluff, you also have to be ready to go all the way with it. Not an easy decision.

And no, for all those on Twitter who asked me Thursday evening if I’ve finally lost my optimism for a season, I have not totally lost it.

I’m less confident of it, but I still can’t fathom both sides allowing whatever existing differences that remain to force an entire season to get canceled for the second time in eight years. Which is otherwise known as industry suicide.

I still can’t see it happening. But I’m less sure of it than I was before.