How long will it last?

Does this sound familiar?

You're an American, and you're a hockey fan. You're a rare breed in your office. When the lockout first began, coworkers would stop by your cubicle to offer their condolences, as if your dog just died, all the while thanking the baseball and football gods that they don't have to endure your morning re-enactments of Peter Forsberg's latest goal-scoring feat. The traffic has dropped considerably lately, but the people who care (or are they just rubbing it in?) still pause on their way to the printer and ask the same questions.

Why? That's the easy one to answer. Cap vs. no cap, you tell them.

Who's fault is it? You say it's the owners. After all, they said everything was fine the last time the CBA expired. They opted for four more years, forked over big bucks to big busts and now they're crying broke. Still, you explain, you have trouble siding with multimillionaire players who had no business making so many millions in the first place.

Then it comes: How long will it last? That one haunts you. It echoes in the emptiness of your soul, keeps you awake at night. And it does all that for one reason: You don't know the answer. So you guess. Half a season. A whole season. Maybe even two.

In an effort to gauge how long the standoff between the NHL and the NHL Players' Association will last, ESPN.com e-mailed our hockey-covering colleagues across the league and asked for their opinions (it's not like they had anything else to do). Of the 32 responses, 18 estimated the CBA would be settled and the league would be up and running by January, 12 expected the lockout to last an entire season, while four expected it to drag on at least a season and a half, maybe even two.

Here are some selected responses:

(This) season's greetings
Adam Proteau, The Hockey News: Lockout Length: Until January. Why? If the league and players have settled any sooner than the New Year, you can be sure one of two things happened: (a) One of the sides managed to swap the real leader of the opposing side with a Manchurian Candidate clone ("Commissioner Bettman? Commissioner Gary Bettman? Commissioner Gary B. Bettman?") or (b) Wayne Gretzky realized he could settle the whole thing in five minutes by threatening to go on a hunger strike. If they don't settle by January and cancel the season, you can be sure of one thing: Both sides are out of their minds. Because with Joe Gibbs returning to Washington, Shaq's conquering of South Florida, and Oprah giving away deeds to small countries to every audience member at her shows in Chicago, the general public's awareness of hockey in the U.S. is going to shrink faster than the membership in the Cleveland Chapter of the Art Modell Fan Club.

Richard Durrett, Dallas Morning News: January. I've got to think that both sides will smarten up and figure out an entire season without hockey could cripple the game nearly beyond repair in the United States. Once the players start missing a bunch of paychecks and the owners' lockout savings account dwindles, both sides will need to get the season started again. Let's just hope that's January 2005 and not January 2006.

Jason Kay, The Hockey News: I think we'll have a deal by mid-December. To me, that's the make-or-break point for having any hockey played this season. The league has said it wants the new CBA to be completely iron clad before any action takes place. A document of that scope will take at least a couple weeks to draft. By comparison, the last CBA wasn't completely finished until the spring of '95. Despite the preparedness warnings from the NHLPA, I think the players will buckle first when faced the possibility of not receiving a paycheck for 18 months. I think the league has the majority of the leverage and significantly more solidarity than in 1994. (Of course, I also thought the Czechs and Americans were going to win their semifinal matches in the World Cup).

Dave Fay, Washington Times: There will be hockey in the NHL by December 15. It won't take very long for owners to realize that fan interest, already at a very low ebb, is ready to fall off the chart and the few remaining faithful will quickly find other things to do with their time and, more importantly, money. A face-saving albeit costly compromise will be reached with the PA while a committee is appointed to find a replacement for Gary Bettman.

Pat Hickey, Montreal Gazette: I believe that the lockout will follow the lines of the last work stoppage in 1994-95, and we'll see hockey early in the new year. That's when owners will figure they can salvage some cash at a time when people start getting interested in hockey (post Bowls and Super Bowl) and the players will start getting nagged by wives who are tired of having them around the house.

From lockout to strike?
E.J. Hradek, ESPN The Magazine: If the NHL refuses move off its salary cap proposals, the two sides will remain hopelessly deadlocked. At some point in the process, the league will seek to have the dispute legally declared a labor impasse. Once that is accomplished, the NHL can unilaterally impose a salary cap system and invite the players back to their respective teams. The players likely will refuse that invitation, effectively turning the lockout into a strike. At that point, the league will have to determine whether or not it would like to go forward with replacement players. In this scenario, the work stoppage could last anywhere from 12 to 24 months. If, however, the league opts to negotiate a compromise luxury tax system, the two sides could solve their differences in a matter of days. That seems like a better route to take.

Ross McKeon, San Francisco Chronicle: I estimate a labor relations board will step in at some point, declare an impasse which will touch off the players' calling a strike. The season will be completely lost, then a compromise will be struck in time for next season with a new CBA featuring both a hard cap for top-salaries ($7 million), a minimum teams MUST spend ($30 million) and a luxury-tax mechanism for teams that don't eclipse top salaries for individuals, but who exceed a pre-set cap for team spending (i.e. $45 million).

The lap of luxury (taxes)
Larry Brooks, New York Post: If the league holds to its percentage-of-the gross link, the season will be cancelled. If by the middle of November the league commits to negotiating a luxury-tax based system, a deal probably can be reached by Christmas.

Al Morganti, ESPN: This lock out is going to last through the Canadian Thanksgiving, American Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, Boxing Day, and into the first weeks of the new year. The maddening part is that the end result is something we can predict right now: there will be a luxury tax on payrolls over about $42 million, the arbitration process will be dramatically different, the age for free agency will drop to about 27 years old, and the Rangers will still stink. Figure that pressure from the owners on Bettman will start getting greater around November, the number of anonymous quotes in the media dramatically increase around the first of December, and a settlement sometime around Christmas will lead people to think the luxury tax was the NHL's idea in the first place. The season will resume with a conference-only schedule of 45 games, a fast-paced playoffs, and the Tampa Bay Lighting retaining the Stanley Cup.

See you in '05-06
Ira Podell, Associated Press: All along I thought that there's no way they would cancel the whole season, but then I recalled thinking the same thing about the World Series. I think a shutdown until January is all but certain. I am starting to feel that Gary Bettman's desire for a salary cap is so strong that he will go to the mat for it, including tossing away a whole year.

Alan Hahn, Newsday: This lockout will last the entire season. I feel it is inevitable. The union must know that it will have to come to some kind of agreement that involves a salary cap, however it won't do so by simply rolling over. If the union is going to eventually relent -- and that's certainly not a given -- it will do so only after the NHL feels some pain from this. The loss of an entire season would be the worst kind of pain this league can endure. Of course the league could give in before then. But that happened once before, in 1994, and look what it led to.

Steve Harris, Boston Herald: Absolute best-case scenario, the lockout lasts for half a season. But that's not going to happen. It's going to be at least a full year, maybe even two, for the simple reason that there does not appear to be room for compromise. The owners are determined to fight to the bitter end to get their "cost certainty," their salary cap; the players are equally adamant they'll never give up their right to work in a free market. Eventually, one side has to give up the fight, and that will happen only after a long, suicidal stoppage that will hurt the NHL in so many profound ways. Shame, shame on both sides -- but especially the players, for refusing to make the necessary sacrifices to get a system that works for all sides, including the overpaying fans.

Adrian Dater, Denver Post: I think the lockout will wipe out the entire season. I think we'll next see NHL hockey at the start of the 2005-06 season. I think the owners are hell bent on breaking the union.

Tim Panaccio, Philadelphia Inquirer: All along I have felt this was a show of force between both sides to see who would blink first, and it would all be settled by January. After the most recent meeting, I am convinced the rumors are true: this lockout will last one season and the NHL will try to unilaterally implement a contract of its own on the basis both sides have reached an impasse. However, since both sides have not submitted to binding arbitration, I would be shocked if U.S. labor would allow such a thing to a group so large. Either way, the season is lost.

Better halves prevail
Jim Matheson, Edmonton Journal: The lockout will be over when the wives say, "Can't we live on $1.5 million?" That should be around Christmas. The wives will have a bigger say than anybody thinks. About then, they'll be ready to kick their husbands out of the house, too.

A long, long winter
Terry Frei, Denver Post: Both sides have so much to lose. The talk that certain owners would prefer a long-lasting lockout is absolutely true, but what has been overlooked is the fact that another faction -- Detroit, Colorado, Philadelphia, et. al. -- wants this settled tomorrow. So they'll get it settled, right? Wrong. There are just too many factions and mixed messages, especially on the owners' side. They'll be back in January 2006, for a 48-game 2006 season. It will take a younger players' faction -- the late 20s set -- and a reasonable owners' faction to get this back on track. And it's going to take that long.

Erik Erlendsson, Tampa Tribune: With so much at stake and if smarter heads prevail (unlikely), it will be similar to the last lockout and they will be playing by January. However, because you have two very egotistical leaders on both side and neither wants to be viewed as having lost this labor war, much as many perceive Bettman lost the last one, it won't be until franchises start to feel the void of empty buildings and emptying wallets. Based on recent developments, I think the lockout lasts two years, until a franchise or two goes under, and they both lose big. Loss of franchises, big loss for the league. Loss of jobs, big loss for players.

121 days, give or take a minute
John Buccigross, ESPN: The NHL lockout will last 121 days. An agreement will be reached in early-mid January at which time Gary Bettman will retire and announce his ambitions to bring cost certainty to P-Diddy's child support payments. Someone will have to awake Barry Melrose from his three-month, cigar-in-the-mouth nap on the recliner, and Jaromir Jagr will wonder what happened to half his blackjack money. Groupies, bartenders, and casinos will smile once more, and ESPN2 will be able to discontinue Slovakian Celebrity Poker and begin its NHL package in HD.

Editor's note: John Buccigross' column on ESPN.com has not been affected by the lockout. It will debut on Monday, October 11.