Is this how a season will end, with a collective shrug of shoulders?
After plugging a few holes in the proverbial wall of solidarity, NHL Players' Association boss Bob Goodenow emerged from a much-anticipated meeting with team reps, players and union executives Tuesday and essentially announced that players expect the season will be canceled and that they can live with it.
Maybe next year.
Of course, the players would like to play, Goodenow added, even the 240 who have flooded the hockey job market in Europe, prompting charges that they are no better than the "scabs" who will likely try and steal the players' NHL jobs next fall. Ouch.
The players are willing to negotiate to formulate a new collective bargaining agreement. In fact, Goodenow said he is hopeful a deal could be done in time to salvage at least part of the 2004-05 season. But when he was pressed for the basis of such hope, Goodenow could provide none.
"It is what it is," he said.
When commissioner Gary Bettman decides the lockout has dragged on long enough, he will cancel the season, Goodenow said. "We'll just deal with it as the calendar moves along."
Next summer. Next fall. Whenever.
And here we thought the prospect of veteran face-rearranger Rob Ray knocking down Daniel Alfredsson or Marian Hossa to get through a picket line to the Corel Centre Ice next fall would throw a scare into the NHLPA. Or that the mutterings of fringe players like Pierre Dagenais or Andrew Ference or Mike Commodore or Brian Pothier, who had the temerity to suggest that a salary cap might not be the Drano Goodenow insists it is, would actually facilitate some movement in the NHL lockout that's now in its seventh week.
We were wrong.
The problem with labor negotiations that have featured 53 straight days of nothingness is that the reportage on the issue tends to veer from the freeway to the breakdown lane. In the absence of anything substantive in terms of progress, even the smallest noise resonates.
Hall of Famer Guy Lafleur suggested recently that if there's no hockey this season, "I would file for bankruptcy and start all over again."
Interesting. But as far as we know, Lafleur is not a graduate of the London School of Economics nor is he an expert on international finance or labor or anything beyond scoring goals. He is a former hockey player who no doubt loves the game and feels the same kind of anger and sadness that many fans and players feel. No more, no less.
Likewise the comments of a handful of disgruntled, out of work third- and fourth-liners hardly represent the chinks in the union armor that press reports would suggest.
Goodenow said as much Tuesday, as did a chastened Dagenais, who wore an NHLPA cap to the four-hour meeting and thanked his union brethren, a la the Stepford Wives, for showing him the light.
"I said what I said last week, but it was nice to come here and learn a lot about the issues," said Dagenais, who reportedly had never been to an NHLPA meeting before and who refused to say whether he would still accept a salary cap.
Given the sheer number of players involved, it would be surprising if these kinds of comments weren't being aired.
Even the hammering players are taking for their mass exodus to Europe, that it reinforces the notion they are duplicitous and greedy, willing to take jobs from other players to pad their own pockets while they wait out the lockout, means little in the grand scheme of things. That former NHL netminder Corey Hirsch told Sun Media he considered NHLers in Europe to be "scabs" matters little to the bottom line of how or when this mess might be cleaned up.
Which is why Tuesday's meeting assumed a level of importance that defied the reality of the moment.
The meeting was scheduled weeks ago as a way of bringing the 700-plus locked-out players up to speed on negotiations. No new proposal was expected from the meeting and none was delivered.
What might have been surprising was the casualness with which the approaching end of the season is being taken by all concerned, as though it is inevitable.
Perhaps it is.
At the start of the lockout, many players quietly suggested they were prepared to wait out the initial weeks assuming that as the so-called drop-dead period approached, there would be incentive for both sides to return to the bargaining table and perhaps hammer out a solution to save at least half a season. But the NHL has maintained that it will not set or respond to deadlines, that the issue is clear -- salaries must be tied to revenues. And that at some point, likely by the end of November, owners will be told they can open their buildings for other events for the balance of the season.
Do the math. Owners have been given the green light to clear dates in their buildings in 45-day increments. That means buildings are now freed up through the middle of December. If one assumes that the Stanley Cup will be lifted before August, and that the latest possible starting point for a season is mid-January, then a deal must be in place by the end of November at the very latest.
The NHL continues to play a strangely coy game of insisting the owners have not discussed an actual date from which there is no return.
"We've given it no thought," executive vice president and chief legal officer Bill Daly said Tuesday. "We're going to negotiate until we get an agreement. We'll take a look at the calendar and see if we can have a season."
This strategy of simply sliding into a drop-dead position as opposed to establishing a firm deadline is distinctly different than the approach of a decade ago, when the drop-dead date was the catalyst to an agreement that ultimately cost the owners control of salaries.
No doubt there were hard questions asked behind closed doors Tuesday about the prospect of the season being canceled without so much as a cursory meeting between the two sides. But whatever rancor, whatever hurt feelings, whatever the divide might be between the stars and the rank and file, the players emerged insisting they are walking in the same line.
Sadly, it appears they walk in step toward the precipice -- without a restraining hand in sight.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.