Sides too close to call the season

There is a special place in hockey hell for the National Hockey League and its players if they do not strike a deal. Now. Today.

Endless tape loops of mid-February tilts between the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and Carolina Hurricanes, Don Cherry fashion shows and Jacques Martin postgame interviews, viewed for all eternity from the cramped Joe Louis Arena press box. That's what awaits these two factions if they cannot finish the startling work done under cover of darkness in Niagara Falls, N.Y., late Monday night.

In a mad, desperate bid to save what remains of the 2004-05 season -- and let's be brutally frank, to save whatever real future the NHL has in North America -- the players did what they said they would never do: They accepted a salary cap. But, it should be noted, that about-face came only after the league backed off its long-standing demand for a fixed link between revenues and salaries.

In short, the two sides negotiated.

They have broken down the seemingly impenetrable wall that has separated them during this five-month farce of a lockout that has made them the laughingstock of the sporting world.

For the first time since the lockout officially began Sept. 16, the two sides appeared to examine the big picture.

For the first time, they truly seemed to understand what could happen at commissioner Gary Bettman's apocalyptic end-of-the-season news conference Wednesday and decided to do something about it.

For the first time, they didn't simply exchange proposals destined to be rejected out of hand, but instead began to sacrifice and concede in order to forge a deal that ultimately works for both sides.

It sounds so mind-numbingly simple, yet it is something that has escaped the two sides, so wrapped up have they been in their own dogma.

At least until Monday.

But now they must finish the deal.

"It is indeed unfortunate that with the major steps taken by both sides we were unable to build enough momentum to reach an agreement," NHLPA senior director Ted Saskin said in a statement released early Tuesday morning.

Surely this is one last spasm of gamesmanship from the players. Old habits are hard to break, after all.

But imagine if Christopher Columbus had decided to turn his fleet around because of a few choppy waves.

Or if Sir Edmund Hillary, just steps from the Everest summit, had decided his toes were cold and changed his mind.

Or if Leonardo DaVinci got a cramp in his wrist and left Mona Lisa with a brush cut.

Surely this isn't how it will end. After accomplishing what many believed was unachievable even 24 hours ago, the two sides will not leave the easiest part of this job unfinished, will they?

Both sides essentially agreed on a 24 percent rollback on all existing salaries earlier this month. After the owners backed off their demand for a link between salaries and revenues, the players responded with a proposal of a $52 million cap, the first time they have accepted a cap of any kind, at least publicly. The league rejected the amount and countered with $40 million. On Tuesday, they upped the offer to $42.5 million. The players countered that evening with $49 million.

So the week began with the two sides $12 million apart, with the most recent offers making the difference only $6.5 million.

In real dollars, it might seem like a significant gap, but considering the distance covered and the barriers vaulted in such a short time, it's nothing that can't be reconciled over a 12-pack of low-carb Labatt or Bud Light (or whichever major beer sponsor is still in the sponsoring mood at this late stage).

One player rep told ESPN.com Tuesday morning that he was surprised to learn that the union had accepted a salary cap but that now that the two sides are talking dollars they should be able to get a deal done.

"Before, we seemed to be talking apples and oranges," he said. "There's been more done in the past week than during the whole lockout, maybe than during the last five years."

If a salary-cap deal is put to a vote, the rep said he expects it would be ratified by a significant majority.

Because the NHL courts and cultivates cynicism, it's difficult to reconcile these sudden signs of hope. After all, the chance still remains that after regaining their balance by linking arms, the two sides might yet stub their toes and drag each over the edge and into the abyss.

And even if they do reach an agreement, there are ruined relationships with fans and sponsors to consider. There is the shabby on-ice product that needs to be addressed and the enmity players no doubt will feel toward owners, who they felt bullied and disrespected them throughout this process.

But those are bridges both sides should be happy to have the opportunity to cross.

There likewise will be debate about the validity of a partial season and of awarding a Stanley Cup to a team that will play only 28 regular-season games. But as much as it is an obvious cash grab for owners and players, playing a truncated season is also a crucial first step to repairing those tattered relationships and to saving the game.

There is also the question of how it came to this, how more than half a season, thousands of jobs and millions of dollars went by the boards before the two sides came to their senses. It is a burden of shame the players and the owners will carry and, whether it should or not, such shame will diminish and ultimately dissipate over time.

But in the end, surely all of these debates are preferable to the alternative, listening to Gary Bettman apologizing to fans for taking away their game.

So now it is time to finish the deal and find out whether the game really can save itself.

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