Make-or-break day in CBA negotiations

NEW YORK -- Before our eyes, we watch the art of the deal ... or the art of the implosion.

Which will it be?

As one source close to the negotiations aimed at ending the almost-three-month NHL lockout told ESPN.com Thursday morning, it’s close.

“Close but precarious,” the source said.

Precarious, indeed.

After two days of marathon discussions, talks have reached a critical juncture, and sources on both sides of the negotiation indicate a precipitous decline in optimism since Tuesday evening, when it looked like moderate voices were going to lead to a deal in the near future.

And while we have been saying for some time that this moment or that moment is crucial to saving at least part of the 2012-13 season, it now appears that we truly are at crunch time.

Talks grew contentious as Wednesday passed into Thursday, and it seems clear that the outcome of Thursday’s talks -- if they occur at all -- could determine the season.

At the end of Wednesday, the NHL made what appeared to be a major move toward the middle, upping its offer to guarantee existing contracts from $211 million to $300 million. But the pool of money comes with some conditions, including a 10-year length to a new CBA and a five-year cap on contract lengths -- both conditions the players oppose. Some of that make-whole money comes from player pensions, which is also a concern to the players.

So now what?

The players were meeting Thursday morning to determine their response to the owners’ proposal and to assess whether the move on make-whole money is really a move or just something dressed up to look like a significant move.

The question is whether NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr sees the movement as a sign of weakness, a sign that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has lost the support of his group and a fissure to exploit.

If that’s the case, Fehr’s history suggests he will push forward, ask for more or delay the response, hoping the owners will sweeten the deal, move off the contracting issues or add even more to the make-whole pot. (The players asked for $383 million in make-whole money two weeks ago.)

But where is the edge of the negotiating envelope?

And what’s on the other side?

Sources on both sides of the talks believe that these days in New York, days that have featured long bargaining sessions without Fehr or Bettman in the room, are the edge of that envelope.

On the other side is oblivion, another lost season.

On this side, though, a deal, a portion of a season, a chance at redemption.

Logic, which was in such short supply before hope of a deal was renewed this week, suggests that this has to be about more than two personalities exerting themselves on the process. It has to be about more than the opposing forces of Bettman and Fehr. The deal to be made is bigger than those two men, both of whom are expected back at the table if the two sides resume talks Thursday afternoon.

A negotiation like this is like a train. There are a lot of personalities involved, a lot of constituents to take into account. As such, it takes a lot to get both sides going in the right direction. Conversely, when things go sideways, as they threatened to Wednesday night with both sides believing the other side was not serious about taking the final step toward a deal, it takes a lot to stop it.

If the players don’t like the conditions on the larger make-whole money, then doesn’t logic suggest that they go back on the total and hope the league moves off the conditions? Isn’t that what negotiations are about?

In the end, the players will have to decide whether the owners' last offer was a sign of weakness or simply a move to get a deal done, the right thing to do at the right moment in time and something to which the players can respond in keeping the train on the tracks.

With the envelope pushed to the breaking point, wouldn’t it be nice to see both sides do the right thing for a change?

Nothing less than the balance of the hockey season depends on that happening, and happening today.