How many games will the NHL count?

We're optimists.

At least we're trying to be.

The sun will come up tomorrow, the stock market will rise, and the National Hockey League will salvage part of the regular season once the two sides cease insulting each other in e-mail and actually negotiate.

A 2005 season could be "meaningful" with as few as 24 games, beginning in late February. In fact, it could be so exhilarating, season-ticket holders might end up asking: Can we do this every year? And that would be a huge step toward regaining credibility for a league that seems determined to make itself the butt of internationally known jokes.

Know all that talk about a "drop-dead" date? What that really means is that if and when the season is scrubbed, that's the date when everyone involved might as well be saying they want the league to drop dead.

The players haven't broken ranks, in part because it wasn't hard for NHLPA leadership to portray as insulting the league's counteroffer to the players' offered 24-percent salary rollback and other changes.

But they're antsy, and NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow's advice to take jobs in Europe now and for next season probably will add to that phenomenon.

On the other side, reasonable owners, the ones the NHL might have feared speaking up in a full meeting, also should be feeling nervous.

Why? Shutting down completely this season will imperil many franchises' season-ticket bases.

Commissioner Gary Bettman keeps saying the fans understand and support the league's position, especially if it means moderating or decreasing ticket prices. There was an element of truth in that, but only to a point. Widespread scorn for both sides about the lack of serious negotiation puts that "point" in the rear-view mirror.

Hockey's hard-core base immediately will pay attention again if the games resume for this season. Despite grumbling, they won't be able to help themselves. But if the season dies, the individual (non-corporate) season-ticket holders who have been taking refunds as the lockout continues will be tempted to toss that next invoice right in the trash. Many who have allowed the teams to hold onto their money at some point finally could say, "nope, enough's enough," demand a refund and/or opt off the list when they can. They'll say they'll pick and choose the games they want to attend.

It will be their protest. They might think they'll come back for many games, but once they're off that season-ticket list, they're no longer automatic for that Tuesday showdown against the Atlanta Thrashers. And even if they stay on the list for "next" season, a scrubbed season increases the chances of transforming them into "soft" customers who look to get out at the first opportunity.

This can get done.

If both sides only tried harder.

So as long as we're looking at this on the bright side, the last-ditch scenarios could be either 24- or 28-game seasons, beginning on or around Feb. 22.

The 48-game intra-conference model from 1995, when the New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup on June 24 (good thing it was a sweep), isn't sacrosanct.

Players who haven't fled to Europe have had an informal agreement among themselves that they will work out in earnest, as if it's their own training camp and a season is imminent, through Jan. 21. They should be more patient.

On the surface, the players receiving only 30 percent of their salaries (minus rollbacks) for this season, and the owners maintaining a full playoff field of revenue, might seem unfair to the NHLPA. Also, "bad" teams likely to miss the playoffs could be even more obdurate than they're being now.

Let's give them credit for being able to tweak that in the CBA and league boardrooms, as well, perhaps with the absence of or reduction of rollbacks in 2004-05 contracts and playoff revenue sharing.

Stretching the playoffs well into the summer would only hold the league up to further ridicule, shove it farther back into the shadows of the North American sports stage, and highlight the absurdity that made it necessary. So the Cup still should be awarded by early June, at the latest.

In terms of physical conditioning, most players could be on the ice -- yes, playing games -- tomorrow. But the problem would be that many teams aren't anywhere close to having a full roster under contract. So we'd allow a two-week window for contracts and logistics.

That makes the "drop-dead" date Feb. 8, and let's assume a Feb. 22 opening night.

OPTION 1: 24 games

All within the division, three home and three away versus each opponent. Existing home dates can be the framework. By the way, the 45-day rolling cancellation policy is largely irrelevant because few acts of consequence can be booked on short notice. It would take some tweaking, since the Northeast Division's Boston, Buffalo, Montreal and Ottawa all had scheduled home games on Saturday, March 19. But it would be relatively easy for scheduling guru Steve Hatze Petros.

It would be playoff-type hockey from the first drop of the puck. There would be a sense of urgency and even increased tension and competitiveness because of the familiarity among opponents in the seven-week schedule.

Two teams from each division, plus the two third-place finishers with the most points by conference, make the playoff field. Inequity in divisional strength could lead to some "unfairness," but that's a small price to pay.

That's the favorite here, but there are a couple of other realistic options.

OPTION 2: 28 games

This follows the 1995 model, with a slight compression of the schedule, if necessary, and a home-and-home series against each conference opponent. Use the existing home dates as the starting point and adjust where necessary. No divisional standings. Top eight make the playoffs.

Depending on the timing of a settlement, the plan might require a slight nudging back of the postseason.

OPTION 3: Pick up the schedule when the league is ready to play, but make sure each team plays a minimum of 24 games.

The old schedule applies, tickets work, the hotel reservations (presumably) have been made. Maybe the only concession would be addition of games, where necessary, to get everyone the same number.

This season already is a bit of an abomination, so the inequities in scheduling -- home-and-away dates, road trips, strength of schedule -- would just have to be accepted.

Let's just hope this all isn't moot.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the recently published "Third Down and a War to Go," and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."