At least there's still hope

This must be how the condemned man feels when the guard comes by, dragging his keys along the bars just before midnight and says, "Not tonight Charlie."

Maybe tomorrow, but not tonight.

So it was for the 2004-05 NHL season Thursday night.

Most believed the season had been given its death sentence with the rejection of an owners' proposal by the players Wednesday afternoon. The proposal was roundly criticized by players, agents and analysts as reflecting the league's single-minded determination to bring the union to its knees even if it means becoming the first North American professional sports league to lose an entire season to a labor dispute.

All that remained in the wake of the rejection, it seemed, was the brief, final confrontation between the respective leaders, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow.

But instead of the eyes-darting, Sergio Leone stare-down across a barren boardroom table and the quick-draw conclusion to negotiations and the season itself, there was something else altogether. A stay of execution to be sure, but beyond that, no one is quite sure.

"A collective bargaining meeting between representatives of the National Hockey League and NHL Players' Association began Thursday afternoon and finished after 10 p.m. ET. In deference to the process, there will be no comment, and no further update is expected tonight," the NHL announced. The sides will meet again Friday.

"That's interesting. That's probably as good news as you could ask for coming out of today," a player rep told ESPN.com.

So tight-lipped were the two sides it's not even known if they will meet again. Although given the dire warnings from the NHL's chief negotiator, Bill Daly, that talks needed to be revived Thursday and keep going almost non-stop in order to save the season, one small movement Thursday meant the sides will meet again Friday, and so on, until the talks spontaneously combust or a deal is reached.

"That's how a deal will get done," the player rep said.

What exactly has transpired in New York will no doubt launch a thousand rumors across the hockey universe.

What is known is that Goodenow and Bettman rejoined the negotiating process for the first time since an exchange of proposals in Toronto Dec. 9 and Dec. 14 and began meeting at 1:30 p.m.

We also know that Goodenow told his constituents, the 730 players now scattered across the globe and with whom he communicates electronically, that he was going to New York with the express purpose of trying to extract from Bettman an explanation of why the players' last proposal couldn't be the basis for an agreement.

"He's confident that our offer would work especially if you tweaked it," a player rep told ESPN.com on Thursday night.

That proposal included the players' landmark offer of an across-the-board, 24 percent rollback on all existing salaries along with modifications to salary arbitration, entry level contracts and a luxury tax.

It did not contain a salary cap or any kind of cost certainty. That led the league to reject the Dec. 9 offering before making a separate offer five days later and yet another Wednesday, both of which were based on tying players' salaries to revenues.

Given the disappointment that greeted Wednesday's proposal, there seemed to be little left to discuss Thursday but the disposal of the remains of the season. And yet, the two sides continued to meet into the evening hours even after the NHL put out its news release.

Analysts, observers, professional mediators, soothsayers and just about anyone else asked about the matter have insisted that somewhere between the players' "we will never accept a salary cap" and the owners' "we must have a salary cap to survive," is a workable solution. Is it possible that at the proverbial eleventh hour Bettman and Goodenow are finding that middle ground? Perhaps a luxury tax that morphs into a salary cap or vise versa or any of a hundred different permutations that might drag salaries and guarantee owners a fair shot at profitability?

Trying to decipher the nature of a meeting about which there is no real first-hand information is a mug's game. There have been lengthy meetings between the two sides at various points since the lockout began Sept. 15. But those "meetings" have often been marked by long periods of "caucusing" which is a lawyers' word for not negotiating but racking up billable hours just the same, being in the same building but not in the same room.

The very same process might have been at play Thursday. One hopes not, but hope has been in exceedingly short supply throughout the lockout. No real reason to think otherwise now, other than the belief that when staring into the abyss Goodenow and Bettman finally grasp what's at stake and step back together.

And so the prisoner sits back on his bunk, the guard's footsteps disappearing down the hall, keys clanging on the bars.

Whether the season has earned just a short reprieve before the inevitable or is headed on the path towards a full pardon remains unknown -- at least for another day.

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