There's still a glimmer of hope

The finger is once again on the switch, the lights about to be turned out on the National Hockey League's misbegotten 2004-05 season.

Is there any surprise that, after the abrupt collapse of talks between the NHL and its locked-out players Friday afternoon, a feeling of impending doom has once more settled on the hockey world?

Still, many would have us believe that all of this, from the moment the lockout was announced Sept. 15 through to what most believe is the imminent end of the season in the next few days, was inevitable.

We beg to differ.

A top hockey source told ESPN.com on Friday evening he remains hopeful the two sides will meet again and that there are no firm plans to cancel the season in the short term.

Is there a strong likelihood the season will expire, perhaps even by the middle of next week making the NHL the first sport to lose an entire season to a labor dispute? Yes. The evidence is strong that this will be so.

"We met the last couple of days, tried to cover some issues and maybe a few new issues to see if there was a possibility of some common ground and some traction, but that isn't the case," NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow told reporters in New York. "The parties agreed to stay in touch but there's really no progress to report of any type. That's the reality."

It is a familiar refrain sung by both sides throughout this dispute. But in the face of overwhelming pessimism there still exists a chance the two sides could retire to their respective caves and agree to reconvene by the end of the weekend -- a small chance to be sure given the intractable differences that exist between the two sides, but it exists and while it does so too does the season.

"We had extensive and constructive talks over the past two days," NHL executive vice president Bill Daly said in a statement. "While there are no future meetings scheduled, we have agreed to keep the lines of communication open."

The NHL lockout has now eaten up 142 days of what should have been the 2004-05 regular season. In the markets where hockey still registers a pulse, mostly in Canada but certainly in pockets across the United States, each intersection of the two sides has been exhaustively reported upon. Column inches written, television panel discussions convened and call-in show callers summoned.

NHLPA president Trevor Linden daringly asked for informal talks with the league and optimism ran high for a day or so until those talks ended abruptly -- do they ever end any other way? -- sparking another spate of "the end is near" columns and stories and panel discussions.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and Goodenow met for nine hours Thursday, the first time the two leaders have been involved in discussions since Dec. 14, and "end of the season" talk immediately gave way to hope for a miracle settlement.

By 3 p.m. Friday, the season was once again being pronounced DOA.

There is an element of the surreal, even the frantic, surrounding both the negotiations and the responses to them. There are wild swings of emotion often predicated on the ability of those reporting and commenting on the process to read meaning into press releases like the one provided by the players' association Friday.

"The parties met again today for approximately four hours and the discussions broke off with no progress to report," the union told the world.

Hold the release up to the light. Does it say "the season is toast" in invisible ink? To many it does. All of which makes perfect sense given the stakes and the passionate sense of ownership most hockey have about the game.

Hockey people -- and this includes fans, players, general managers, coaches and the people whose jobs hang in the balance across the continent -- want two things and they want them in this order.

They want a settlement to the lockout regardless of how it is achieved, luxury tax or salary cap or by spinning straw into gold. It matters not as long as the season in some form unfolds. These people understand that not to play may destroy the game and no one, not Bettman and not Goodenow, can provide proof that it won't.

Secondly, hockey people want it to end. One way or the other, they want closure to the madness that has afflicted the game since Sept. 15.

They are tired of the rhetoric and the sheer idiocy of a process that threatens to turn a business with $2.1 billion in revenue into the burned-out shell of a 1972 Pinto.

It's worth noting that in Jacksonville this weekend the NFL will celebrate its annual orgy of excess at the Super Bowl. The whimpers emanating from the game of hockey must sound woefully small and insignificant to the hundreds of reporters and the thousands of fans gathered there, and that's assuming the sound registers at all. One imagines it is how Gulliver observed the Lilliputians.

It is something Bettman and Goodenow would do well to consider this weekend as they ponder whether the end is indeed inevitable.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.