Players accept meeting, the inevitable next?

After back-to-back informal meetings with the NHL last week, players' association president Trevor Linden told players to be prepared for the lockout to last well into next season. "Discouraged" and "saddened" were the words Linden used when describing his feelings to reporters.

Was Linden telling the truth and genuinely frustrated? Or was the advice and disclosure a carefully designed ploy to reinforce the players' resolve?

The answer is immaterial.

Just three days later, in spite of Linden's gloomy summation, the players' association accepted the NHL's offer to take part in another informal meeting Wednesday in Toronto.

Why? Do players think that NHL owners, upon hearing Linden's remarks and a subsequent chorus of outrage from other players, turned suddenly remorseful and conciliatory?

Sorry to have offended you. Never mind that salary cap we've been prattling on about.

Not likely.

Bill Daly, the NHL's executive vice president and chief legal officer, said after Thursday's meeting he believed the two sides were closer than Linden let on. Maybe it's true, maybe it's not. But one thing is certain: Whatever stance the league brings to the table Wednesday will include a salary cap.

Will the league offer ways of making a salary cap easier to digest? Without a doubt. It may be in the form of revenue sharing or a system whereby players would receive a larger percentage of revenues as league revenues increase. Maybe Daly and Harley Hotchkiss, co-owner of the Calgary Flames and chairman of the NHL's board of governors, will offer something even more creative to wash it down.

Still, it's unlikely the players aren't aware that a salary cap will be the main course. But meet they will.

A top power broker close to both sides of the issue said Monday "it's incumbent on the NHL to show some good faith in relation to the negotiating process," as opposed to simply dictating terms.

But if negotiating means not demanding a salary cap, why would the NHL start now with the end of the 2004-05 season within spitting distance?

Surely the players don't expect this. But meet they will.

In a perfect world, the two sides would have sat down months ago and started working toward a middle ground that most certainly exists. In a perfect world, the owners would have acknowledged long ago that they made a mess of the game and need the players to help fix their blunders. In a perfect world, the players would have made short-term concessions to ensure the long-term viability of the sport.

None of that happened. Now the NHL stands ready to become the first major North American sports league to lose an entire season because of a labor dispute, a historic event that will cause only the tiniest of ripples on the American sporting landscape.

There has been, for all intents and purposes, only loud posturing from each side. The players' surprising offer last month to roll back salaries 24 percent was just a starting point from which the two sides never proceeded.

Player agent Mike Liut -- a former member of the players' association executive committee whose firm represents about 85 players -- likens the dispute to the pursuit of the Holy Grail, only each side believes its icon, and not the other's, possesses the answer.

It is entirely possible the league took a hard stand during last week's meeting in Toronto in order to enhance the magnitude of its concessions in this week's offer.

"I think maybe that's their strategy," one team's player representative told ESPN.com on Monday while en route to his agent's office to explore his options for playing elsewhere next season.

If that's the case, couldn't it be equally possible that Linden's anger and frustration were orchestrated to extract the greatest concessions from the owners in return for accepting a salary cap?

After last Thursday's session, Linden said if the league responds with a proposal that includes a salary cap, the NHL might as well e-mail it, thus saving both sides the trouble of getting together just to see the players walk out.

But meet they will.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.