Dear NHL: Stop playing games

Back when "Saturday Night Live" was great, Chevy Chase used to remind us on every Weekend Update: "GeneralĂ­ssimo Francisco Franco is still dead!"

And that's how a lot of us are feeling these days about the NHL season as the collective bargaining talks drag on. Whether we're trying to report on them, or just reading and hearing about them, the talks have become a running joke.

Enough already.

If a deal isn't struck in about, oh, the next 11 minutes, the NHL should cancel the season.

I'm on record. If an agreement were reached by February 8, a 24- or 28-game regular season would have been not an abomination, but a potentially thrilling rejuvenation, and it wouldn't have required shoving the postseason back much -- if at all. Negotiations should have been ongoing, passionate and constructive, and one doesn't even need to "pick" a side to subscribe to that view.

But, my God, dragging this on any longer would be torture.

For those of us paying attention, at least.

It'll be like Gary Bettman running his fingernails down the blackboard while Bob Goodenow reads in a monotone from the Revised Statutes and Yanni performs his greatest hits over in the corner.

For as long as this continues.

Instead of letting that happen, whether for two more days or two more weeks, the NHL should shut it down. Announce the season is over. Don't pretend to have any hope. And do whatever is possible to lay the groundwork for getting this settled in time for training camps to open on schedule next September, with a new agreement in place and on-ice issues addressed as well.

Admit that no games will be played.

And don't play games with us.

Spare us from: "The lines of communication still are open." So is 7-Eleven. But hockey isn't going to be played there, either.

Spare us from clinical discussions of "linkage." (That said, we will concede that "Seinfeld" did a wonderful show about this, the episode in which George Costanza kept asking: "Did you tell her about linkage?")

Spare us from the speculation that if the season started on May 18, they could get in a 40-game season and the playoffs before next season's training
camps open, and what's the harm with that?

Spare us from musing that the drop-drop-drop-drop dead date -- as opposed to merely the drop-drop-drop dead date -- must be coming up.

Spare us from lists of delegations, even if they occasionally include someone who isn't a lawyer.

Spare us from "sources close to the discussions," even if this time it's Deep Throat from his death bed.

Spare us from tiny shreds of hope, possible lights at the end of tunnels, windows of opportunity, and how it isn't over until it's over ... or something like that.

Spare us from journalists having to stake out hotels, follow the principals and bribe bellmen to spill the beans about meeting locations.

Spare us from owners being "banned" from talking, which means they can't talk unless they have something to say that can put further pressure on the players' association to capitulate.

Spare us from further embarrassment for the sport. And for those who keep trying to defend it.

It's very simple. After today, trying to salvage the season shouldn't even be a consideration. Yes, picking a no-fudging, this-is-it date is arbitrary and inflexible. Yet at some point, a line has to be drawn. Every day this drags on, even an unlikely settlement would only salvage a season that runs so deep into summer, the NHL would be held up to further ridicule. And a likely ongoing stalemate that eventually causes the season to be officially written off would add insult to insult.

Maybe it shouldn't matter that the NHL again is leaning right into the punches or ridicule from the know-nothings who parrot the tired clichés about the sport and its fan base, whether that's in print, on the air, or at the bar.

But it does matter.

In a lockout that has lasted nearly five months, the galling lack of ongoing, serious negotiation, and the pervasive, breath-holding petulance, have made losers of everyone. The owners are going to get their flesh. The only thing left to be determined is how many pounds. In that sense, the NHL is going to win, whether the settlement comes today or on Jan. 11, 2006.

Whether a deal-preventing cabal of NHL owners wanted this to happen as part of a pre-ordained, kiss-off-the-season strategy; or whether Bettman's and Goodenow's personal agendas and mutual animosity have made this inevitable, all can be further sorted out later.

After today, play taps.

Fire the 21 guns.

Bury the damn general, already.

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."