NHL cannot afford to lose another season

One month ago, the NHL lockout predictably began.

Just when its unpredictable end will arrive is an answer not even Gary Bettman nor Donald Fehr could confidently provide.

And that’s worrisome, of course. There has been zero traction in talks. Neither side has made the next move yet, wanting to make the other sweat a little longer in order to gain some measure of leverage in talks.

So the standoff continues, although the fact the big four will meet again Tuesday in Toronto is a slim glimmer of hope. Getting Bettman, Fehr, Bill Daly and Steve Fehr in the same room as often as possible is the only way this thing will ever find a breakthrough.

Monday, meanwhile, also would have been the first NHL payday for the 700-odd players locked out by owners. Yes, escrow payments north of 8 percent from their 2011-12 salaries are due before the end of the month, and they will help ease that pain, but it won’t take long before Mrs. Player gets tired of her husband not bringing home the bacon.

Similarly, dark arenas will begin to annoy deep-pocketed NHL owners. Sure, they’ve got the financial wherewithal to wait out the players -- that’s a given -- but some owners are also smart enough to see the long-term damage this lockout is already beginning to cause.

This league cannot afford two season-long lockouts. It simply cannot. Any owner foolish enough to believe any cost is worth paying to have the ability to crush the players for good and get the CBA that finally, in their minds, makes everything right doesn’t understand the psyche of the people who buy tickets to watch this incredible sport.

Eight years ago, I was sure about two things at this very juncture in mid-October 2004: 1. There would be no NHL season as owners went to the wall to get their salary cap. 2. My gut told me fans would forgive them because on some level, most fans actually wanted a salary cap, believing that more parity was a good thing; but also the very basic fact that fans believed it would be a one-time thing.

I’m telling you now that there are fans who will never return if there’s no NHL this year.

I mean, surely no league would ever be willing to shut down its doors for an entire season twice in eight years, right?

That very basic question, with a "yes" answer bordering on insanity, is why I’ve held firm on my belief that there will be some form of season this year. My guess since the summer has been a late-November agreement and mid-December puck drop.

I’ve heard from team executives, player agents, players and even a few owners, and the feeling of angst is similar among all of them, as their impatience is beginning to grow and they want to see movement from both sides of the negotiating table.

Several of those people, from both sides, have a similar refrain: "There’s a deal to be done."

I laid out my own solution a few weeks back, hardly original and certainly similar to what others have pointed to. My solution started the players in Year 1 with a 53-47 advantage in the percentage of hockey-related revenue, followed by 52-48 in Year 2, 51-49 in Year 3; then by Year 4, the owners finally get their much-desired 50-50 split. But from a player's perspective, you would hope that by then the HRR pot would have grown enough to help minimize escrow. Hopefully both sides would agree to at least a six-year deal, if not longer.

The hawkish owners want their money now. So they wouldn’t be a fan of my solution. They want to get to the 50-50 split overnight, which would mean serious escrow payments for the players from Year 1. And really, that continues to be the biggest issue facing this stalemate.

The players don’t want to take a significant shave from contracts they’ve already signed. The owners believe the NHLPA asked for it when it turned down the NHL’s request to freeze the cap in late June in order to mitigate the free-agent spending starting July 1.

Here’s where I sit: I think the owners have a legitimate right to point to 50-50 as a fair target after NBA owners got their players to go from 57 percent of the pie to 50. However, I do not think it’s fair for NHL players to have to shoulder that burden overnight. I believe gently phasing into the 50-50 split over time is only fair given what NHL players gave up eight years ago in bargaining -- namely the first cap in the sport’s history.

So two things have to happen for this process to finally go forward: The NHLPA has to begin to acknowledge the 50-50 split somewhere in their proposals, but the NHL and its owners must be willing to phase into that 50-50 equation and not greedily try to get there right away.

Sounds simple, right?