Lack of progress leaves everyone speechless

We live in a television-centric world when, in times of crisis and despair, a few chosen words from a man or woman of historical significance change the tide.

Or at least that particular episode.

If only a perfect quote from Thomas Paine -- "these are the times that try men's souls -- or Socrates or John Mill could do such a thing for the NHL, we'd have a fractured season beginning in a matter of days.

But the NHL isn't a television show -- even in real life, not a well-viewed or particularly lucrative one -- and so it appears there will be no singularly dramatic phrase uttered by a key principal to alter the disastrous course of action jointly set by this battered league and its stubborn and unified players union.

Many words have already been said of course, most of them truculent and divisive, as is often the case when labor problems turn into labor strife.

There was approximately 48 hours of hope this week, in some cases wild, unsubstantiated hope, in other corners modest, I'm-not-going-to-get-too-excited hope.

For those hours, there was this notion out there that by shunting both NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and union boss Bob Goodenow out of the picture temporarily, there might be an opportunity to change the dialogue. It was a faulty concept from the start, really, embraced only by those who seem not to understand that both Bettman and Goodenow are employees, and as such are only doing the bidding of their employers when they act.

So NHL chairman Harley Hotchkiss, a well-respected, 77-year-old oil and gas man who happens to own a piece of the Calgary Flames, altered his plans to leave Naples, Fla., and head back to Calgary for the funeral of one of his partners, and instead traveled to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on Wednesday.

There, he met Vancouver Canucks forward Trevor Linden, the president of the players' union, who had asked for a meeting with Hotchkiss. Both brought two lawyers to the party, and they batted around a few ideas for close to five hours. One of the lawyers on the union side was Ted Saskin, a father of triplets who had experienced the death of his mother that very morning but still made the trip to do his job.

The talks produced nothing, but the two sides agreed to meet again Thursday in Toronto, this time without Hotchkiss, who had the funeral of longtime friend J.R. (Bud) McCaig to attend.

They met for somewhere between three and four hours, again achieving nothing and telling the hockey world when they emerged that their philosophical divide remained large and that, while neither was opposed to talking further, there was no particular reason to schedule new talks.

No reason other than saving the season, of course, and a rabid hockey fan in Long Island or Tampa would be forgiven for being under the impression that saving the season has ceased to be a priority.

Neither side is willing to budge from its entrenched position, and neither has the imagination to concoct a plan that would entice the other to shift even a millimeter.

Even Paine, one would imagine, would look at this mess and find himself speechless, and possibly even hopeless.

This has become an excruciating process to witness for even the most devoted NHL fans over the past four months, as the two sides have seemingly being united only in their desire to bore everyone to death. Maybe they got the idea by watching tapes of some of their games in recent years, the product of a sport that seemed to decide in the mid-90s that the best way to attract new customers was to offer them gradually decreasing amounts of excitement.

Hockey is, at its best, a hotly passionate game, but it hasn't been at its best in the NHL for some time and off the ice the league has produced a decidedly dispassionate labor tussle that has most just wishing the league and union would go away for a while.

They played a game of chicken from September to December as the Red Sox stunned the sports world by winning the World Series, briefly exchanged wild proposals in mid-December as NFL playoff races were heating up, and then resumed the game of chicken again into 2005 at the same time the NBA and college basketball seasons were starting to take shape.

Other than Canada, it's fair to say North America has barely noticed the NHL has disappeared, yet this seems not to have added any urgency to the process.

Even this week, the NHL and the union could only manage about nine hours of quasi-negotiations, staring bleakly at each other across their self-imposed philosophical divide.

The utter stupidity of all of this is truly remarkable. The NHL, a league that needs to share revenues more than it needs to shave costs, seems not to understand that this extended effort to impose a salary cap system may find the league returning to business only to encounter a radioactive landscape in which many NHL teams will find themselves far worse off than when this battle began.

The players, for their part, have decided that they are entitled to a free market that NFL and NBA players do not have, ignoring the precarious place their league holds in the overall North American market and thus failing to recognize they may soon be left with their incomes slashed by even more than the NHL is currently proposing.

The owners are aimless in their short-term thinking, the players delusional as to their real value as athletes.

Now, nobody can say with total conviction that the 2004-05 season has been lost because there is still some time left. It's a remote possibility, but an agreement could yet be cobbled together from the bits and pieces of economic concepts that have been floating around for months, some sort of hybrid deal that would, quite probably, please nobody.

But saving this season, one can easily suggest, will only make the problems of this league worse.

It could well be that if the NHL does indeed become the first North American pro league to lose an entire season to labor nonsense, it could ultimately prove to be a constructive process because from the wreckage might grow a logical new approach for sustained growth and prosperity.

The time for compromise is almost over. Capitulation by one side or the other, it figures, is how this one ends.

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.