PITTSBURGH -- And so it comes down to this: a week, maybe less, to not just save a season but a game's reputation; to save the reputation of its players and owners and to disprove the widely held notion -- one that grows by the day -- that hockey will just never get it right.
Less than a week to prove that hockey isn't the crazy, drooling uncle of sport that deserves to be locked in the attic.
If commissioner Gary Bettman is to be believed, a full 82-game schedule can still be saved if the NHL and its players can get a deal done by Oct. 25.
We're guessing there is wiggle room there, that if there is significant progress made toward resolving this dispute over the next few days, that the deadline could be pushed a little.
In the league's surprise proposal on Tuesday, Bettman insisted an 82-game schedule starting Nov. 2 was possible. The fact the NHL canceled games only to Nov. 1 on Friday suggests that the possibility still exists and with it a chance for the NHL and its players to play a full season. And, in some ways, forget that this laughable excuse for a negotiation ever took place at all.
You will hear folks say that it really doesn't matter whether the NHL plays a full schedule or not. The league played 48 games in 1994-95, when a labor dispute was settled on Jan. 11, 1995.
But let's be honest, that season remains a shameful mark on the NHL's history books coming on the heels of one of its greatest campaigns in 1994, when the New York Rangers won their only Stanley Cup since 1940.
Generally people who believe it's going to be OK to play 60 or 50 or 40 or whatever number of games can be salvaged this season are journalists who are already so sick of covering the lockout that they can't bear to think of covering 82 games on top of this. Or they are people with a vested interest in having some hockey, any hockey, this season, and looking to make a cash grab no matter how unseemly it would be for the NHL and its players to trot out some sort of broken-down version of a regular-season schedule and then run the playoffs.
Yes, arena workers and parking attendants and bar owners and everyone who has suffered, for the most part anonymously, while the two sides try to figure out how not to blow up a game coming off record revenues, would settle for any hockey. That's understandable.
But the operative word is "settle," on a number of different levels.
Why should hockey fans and the people who depend on the game for a living outside the owners and the players have to settle for anything less than the real deal?
They shouldn't because the answer to this dispute is now in the room.
It's there, and if you talk to people on both sides of this great divide, they believe it is there too.
The players through their three-proposal smorgasbord presented Thursday have acknowledged that at some point a 50-50 split in revenues is on the table.
And the league has acknowledged if not a willingness to honor the players' existing contracts, at least that it is a key to getting a deal done and that they will have to come up with a mechanism that simply doesn't require the players to end up paying each other during the life of a new deal in order to satisfy the "make-whole" concept.
There also seems to be some consensus on revenue sharing.
A settlement isn't just sitting under a desk in the corner like some Easter egg waiting to be picked up and put in a basket, but the tools for hammering such a settlement together are in the room for the first time.
The NHLPA and the NHL just need to return to that same room and pick up those tools.
And they need to do it now. Today.
What has been most striking as this lockout lurches into its sixth week now is how precious little true negotiating has been done. The two sides have worked on ancillary (i.e., non-core economic) issues but as for sitting down, shirtsleeves rolled up, let's-really-get-down-to-brass-tacks-on-how-the-money-will-be-split-up-to-which-of-the-NHL's-needy-teams, not so much.
The NHL, for instance, waited all of about 10 minutes before dismissing the players' proposals Thursday even though, according to the union, at least a couple of those proposals examined a manner in which they could get to the 50-50 split in revenues that seems to be the magic equation to getting a deal done.
Far too much time has been spent pontificating for the cameras, spinning and bad-mouthing and complaining and quiet sulking, and far too little time getting to work.
And the time for that has come to stop.
It is time to forget all the slights and indignations. Time to forget the odious first proposal from the owners, the ridiculous foray into provincial labor law by the players, the strangely haphazard way in which the players' last proposal was produced Thursday without running the numbers, the owners' shocking reluctance to acknowledge that paying the players what they are owed is an important element to getting a deal done. Enough.
Because this is what will happen if the work doesn't begin in earnest.
If the two sides continue to sputter along and somehow manage to get a deal done in December or January, and they play a shortened schedule of some kind, history will judge them harshly. Every time a player or an owner looks at the asterisk after the 2012-13 season standings or stats, he will be reminded of the mockery the two sides made of these negotiations. Every game, every highlight will be a painful reminder of all that was squandered, of the shameful way in which they let down the game they all claim they love unconditionally.
A shortened 2012-13 season should be emblazoned with a scarlet letter "M" for "Morons."
If the unthinkable happens and this entire season goes by the boards, as was the case with the 2004-05 season, well, let's just say there is a special place in sports hell for the NHL and its players, and it involves a lot of nonstop tape loops of Jacques Martin news conferences.
But play a full 82 games and these past couple of months become a kind of dream sequence. Team records will remain whole, the playoffs will not have a peculiar taint about them. People will come back to work and fans will, presumably, return to their seats and their loyalties.
There will be no asterisks to constantly remind everyone of what was forsaken in the name of greed and ego.
These have not been banner weeks for commissioner Gary Bettman, he of the three lockouts, nor for NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, a stranger in this strange land called hockey.
It's time both earned their keep. It's time both helped cement their reputations as hard but ultimately smart businessmen and negotiators.
It's time to get to work.
It is time for a deal.
Because time is running short and history waits to deliver its judgment on all concerned.