Lockout will finally end ... really

Let's start with this concession: I have been dead wrong from the get-go on how the labor talks between the NHL and its players would go.

Foolishly, I believed that after coming off five straight years of record revenues the two sides would work diligently in the offseason to get a deal done in order to sustain the significant forward momentum the league had enjoyed since the last lockout.

A few exhibition games might go by the boards as the final details were being hammered out; maybe even a slight delay to the start of the regular season as the two sides completed their dance.

My bad.

And every time I assumed logic would dictate a move toward a deal, like when the Winter Classic was in jeopardy in early November, I was wrong again.

But we remain nothing if not consistent.

And really, is there anyone in the hockey world who doesn't fully expect that in the coming days -- and by that we mean within a week -- the two sides will reconvene, somehow pull their collective toes back from the abyss and come up with a deal?

Even in the aftermath of last week's bizarro meltdown of talks in New York City that had both sides going off on emotional tangents that seemed to suggest all hope was lost, it didn't take long for more optimistic mutterings to emanate from both sides.

Call it taking stock, call it self-preservation, but the days after last week's blowout remind us of the aftermath of a party that got way out of hand. You pick up the lamp, you vacuum up the Cheezies ground into the rug, you pick the bottle caps out of the plants and you breathe a sigh of relief that the drapes are indeed fire-resistant and things weren't as bad as you first imagined.

For instance, although commissioner Gary Bettman insisted that all the "gives" the owners made were off the table as of Thursday night, common sense tells us that's not the case. Not yet anyway.

The players have to understand that, too.

And while Thursday night's shenanigans prompted more discussion about the players exploring decertification in its various forms, that's not going to happen. Not yet anyway.

And the owners know that, too.

There truly isn't much ground to cover to get a deal done.

The monetary issues are mostly in place, while the two sides apparently needed to poke each other one more time last week on issues like capping contract length, the length of a new CBA and, in the case of the players, trying to squeeze a little more out of the owners during the transition from the old deal to the new one.

So (and how many times have you heard this in the last two months?) the elements are all there. The decorations are in the room. So is the tree.

Having had a couple of days of sober reflection on last week's drama, is there a single player who believes that it would be prudent to lose an entire season over whether the new deal is eight years or 10 years in length? Is there a single owner who would darken his/her arena for the rest of the season over whether contracts should be capped at five or six years in length?

Imagine the legacy for all involved if that's what happened.

Imagine what people would be saying for 100 years: "You lost a second season in eight years and reinforced your position as the grand buffoons of pro sports over what amounts to arguing over who leaves the tip at breakfast? Really?"

No. Can't happen.

Can it?

As much as the two sides can't stand each other, and as angry as folks were last week, this week is about taking one last look at what lies at the bottom of the cliff and stepping back.

But the players and the owners can't afford to look too long.

We believe Bettman's assertion that anything less than 48 games -- the amount played after the lockout in 1994-95 -- is unworkable. So do the math. Assuming about a week between a tentative agreement and ratification followed by a week of training camp, hockey needs to be played by the first week of January, which means the two sides would need to be in the process of putting a deal together in the next week.

The announcement Monday that games will be canceled through Dec. 30 could be a sign of optimism on the part of the league that we will have hockey in the New Year.

Someone will have to make the first move, of course.

And that isn't a given with two groups that have proved to be so mistrustful, so stubborn that they have already sacrificed half a season on the labor alter.

Still, deputy commissioner Bill Daly and his counterpart with the players' association, Steve Fehr, have been in contact with each other since Thursday.

And with the clock ticking, we still think the call will come and the two sides will reconvene one last time to save a part of this season and bring a merciful end to this exercise in silliness.

Of course, we've been wrong before.