It's time to play before it's too late

So the finish line appears, the point at which hope and belief and gut instinct finally intersects with reality.

Even in the darkest, most silent days of this frustrating labor dispute between the NHL and its locked-out players, there has always been a sense of quiet optimism that at some point there would be a resolution.

That belief, sometimes muted, sometimes unequivocal, emanated from every rung on the hockey ladder.

Talk to governors, owners and team presidents and they always quietly insisted that a deal would be made to save at least a portion of this season.

Players, too, while angry with the NHL owners and commissioner Gary Bettman, always talked about a gut feeling that a deal was possible, if not imminent.

GMs, coaches, scouts all wondered about the timeline, but invariably expressed belief that the two sides would not allow a second NHL season in eight years to be wiped away.

Those in the press corps covering the dispute, especially those who covered the one that scuttled the entire 2004-05 season putting the NHL in a league of its own when it comes to labor blunders, concurred that surely even a sport with a penchant for the backwards could not be so stupid as to ruin itself with two wasted seasons.

But as the two sides went silent the past two weeks after the now infamous drama masking as negotiations in New York, the players giving their executive board near unanimous approval to file a disclaimer of interest and dissolve the union and the owners filing a pre-emptive suit in New York along with a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, it seemed that perhaps everyone involved had confused belief with wishful thinking.

Now, as the owners have shifted once again on their previous position in presenting a new, comprehensive offer to the players and with a more or less firm deadline of having the puck drop no later than Jan. 19 in order to save a minimum 48-game schedule in place, it seems we will finally be rewarded with an answer.

The two sides are expected to meet face-to-face in New York at some point Sunday or Monday morning following a lengthy series of conference calls Saturday aimed at clearing the air on questions pertaining to the league's most detailed offer to date to begin final deliberations on the fate of the season.

At some point in the next 24 to 48 hours, Bettman and his counterpart Donald Fehr, executive director of the NHLPA, will put their final, indelible mark on a process that has been described by more than one labor/sports expert as a textbook example in how not to resolve a labor dispute.

At some point in the next day or so, Bettman's and Fehr's constituents, the owners and players, will have one last chance to make their feelings known and likewise make an indelible mark on the outcome.

It's not going to be a cakewalk. Not by any stretch.

The players don't like the drop in salary cap proposed in the new deal from $70.2 million this season to $60 million next season.

And they don't like that the league's plans for a one-time amnesty buyout before the start of next season will come out of the players' share of hockey-related revenues (although it won't count against team caps).

But are these issues on which to impale an entire season if you're a player that's already seen almost half a season and millions of dollars in salary go swirling down the drain?

Likewise, if the union pushes back on some of those issues, would the league lose at least a partial season over who pays for transition costs? Why not, for instance, split the cost of the amnesty buyout?

Too often when these kinds of so-called motherhood issues have presented themselves, one side or the other has walked away in anger insisting that the other side isn't serious about doing a deal.

Could there be any more stupid response to not having something go your way?

We could spend, oh, a month or two talking about the missteps and the wonky strategies employed by the NHL's owners and, to a lesser degree, the players. But what is the point at this late hour? The past has played far too big a role in extending a needless and potentially devastating lockout; the players determined to right past wrongs and the owners somehow managing to treat these negotiations as they did almost 20 years ago. Go figure.

If there is a sign that at least the owners understand that the day of reckoning is at hand, it is that they did not immediately characterize this latest offer as some sort of "final offer" or a hill upon which anyone would be willing to die -- an unfortunate characterization of the league's stand on capping salary length at five years apparently first uttered by Calgary owner Murray Edwards and then repeated for the press by deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

In fact, the league was reticent to even acknowledge they had made such an offer.

There was little in the way of characterization of Saturday's multiple phone calls: questions and answers. And as has been the case thus far, the less information being shared publicly, the more traction these talks seem to gather.

And so it should be. With the finish line in sight, it would appear to be a good time to put all of the childishness and churlishness aside.

Fehr will have to decide just how far he can push the envelope without leaving everything in tatters, including his own reputation. Remember it was Fehr who, flanked by some of the game's most influential players, insisted the two sides were achingly close to a deal. If that is so, the league's latest offer represents an even greater narrowing of an already narrow gap.

The league, on the other hand, will have to resist its standard response at the first sign of push-back from the union, which is to pitch a fit or try and discredit Fehr.

It is, in short, time to think big picture for once in this odious process.

It's a game, people, something that most involved seem to have conveniently forgotten over the past months. It's time to play it. Before it's truly too late.