NEW YORK -- It was still dark outside, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and defenseman Chris Campoli were chatting amiably in a ballroom in a Manhattan hotel.
In many ways, their conversation represented the crossroads of cynicism and relief.
The commissioner was dressed casually in a white sweater and jeans and Campoli was likewise dressed down as befitting two men who’d just spent the previous 16 hours or so, most of it in the same room, trying to end a lockout that began on Sept. 15 and save a hockey season.
Not far away, deputy commissioner Bill Daly, still fighting off the effects of a severe illness that had made an already taxing process all the more onerous, chatted briefly with his counterpart from the NHL Players’ Association, Steve Fehr. George Parros, his long hair in a ponytail, wandered by, as did Andrew Ference and Jamal Mayers, as Ron Hainsey and Shane Doan chatted in a large scrum with reporters that had been camped out in a different board room or in the hotel lobby since midday Saturday.
The large ballroom was still decorated in a festive motif for the holidays with large ribbon-like accoutrements adding to the element of the surreal.
Federal mediator Scot Beckenbaugh donned his jacket and collected his briefcase and said his goodbyes. It’s entirely likely this deal never happens without his work over the past week. By the time Saturday became Sunday, he was doing less and less and the two sides were doing more and more on their own to bridge the final gaps on contentious issues such as pensions and the salary cap in Year 2 of the 10-year deal.
A polite, jovial man, Beckenbaugh declined to talk to a reporter as he made his way out of the room, gesturing toward the others, saying this was their deal.
Relieved? Of course these men were relieved.
Watching the two sides mingle with reporters, you could feel the relief radiating off them like heat on a desert highway.
Since July they had been going at each other hammer and tong.
As recently as a couple of days ago, the two sides looked like they might veer yet again off the cliff and lose a second entire season to a labor dispute in the past eight years.
“It was a battle,” said Hainsey, who has been a constant on the players’ side of the table throughout the process.
Still, another player told ESPN.com the parties accomplished more during the marathon session that began at the players’ hotel around 1 p.m. Saturday and ended around 5 a.m. Sunday.
How does that happen?
How do intelligent men who are the caretakers of a business that raked in a record $3.3 billion in revenues last season (a fifth straight year of record revenues) stumble around in the wilderness for 113 days before striking a deal?
How do they treat their fans and their brand with such wanton disregard?
The cynics around will suggest that the two sides were relieved to be able to play 48 or 50 games and make back some of the millions of dollars in earnings and salaries that have already swirled down the tubes during this dispute. And sure, there’s some of that.
But if you watched more closely and listened to what these men said, maybe there was as much relief that they didn't completely destroy the game they are supposed to be looking after.
At least here’s hoping that was the nature of what we saw in that Manhattan hotel meeting room in the predawn dark.