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NHL season not in danger of being wiped out – yet

"There will ultimately be a new collective bargaining agreement, but the 2011-12 season is now in jeopardy."

That was NBA commissioner David Stern on Nov. 14 of last year, a mere 11 days before reports of a tentative agreement between the league and the union began to surface.

They were back on the court playing on Dec. 16.

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And there's little question there are some parallels between what's currently happening in hockey.

The one saying I've been thinking of the past week or so when it comes to the NHL lockout is that "it's always the darkest before dawn."

Cliché? Sure. But that's exactly what we're dealing with here.

These negotiations between Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr were always going to be difficult. Heck they were always going to be a clusterbeep. Two smart men who know this game and who are trying to get the best of one another while pushing the boundaries of what they can coax out of the other side.

There were always going to be casualties here - and by casualties, I mean hockey games missed.

Did anyone really think we would have a season of more than 60 games? Would anyone have been surprised if, coming in, they were told the endgame of all of this was similar to the 48-game season we had in 1994-95?

The path to that shortened season isn't an easy one. It's going to involve plenty of ultimatums and leaks to the media about how this really is the last chance to get a deal done.

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The fact is that we're so far from a full season being cancelled that it's not even worth contemplating at this point. If you're looking for a real timeline for when that becomes a possibility, we're probably looking at eight weeks from now - which would take the talks (or non-talks) to Jan. 10 or so.

That would be dire times right there - and if no progress is made between now and then, you better believe the season is likely in jeopardy.

The thing is, however, this lockout only started, officially speaking, eight weeks ago. If you accept that end point I've laid out as in the right part of the timeline, we're only at halftime right now.

Sure it's dark. And yes they're angry at one another and not talking. But to say there hasn't been any progress in the last eight weeks (or even two weeks) is just flat out wrong.

Financially speaking, we're talking about two sides that are only $300-million or so apart in their proposals over the next five years. Even closer if you factor in what prorating the Year 1 salaries would do, which is the likely next step by the NHLPA.

Contractually speaking, there are three key issues at play and, while both sides are standing firm, they also indicate there's some room to talk about their differences.

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This isn't the stuff of Armageddon. It may be frustrating and it may be ridiculous, but it's not the end of the line, by any means.

(Especially if you consider that, to this point, the NHL believes 2012-13 revenues have only been impacted by about $350- to $400-million or 10 to 12 per cent.)

Now, it's widely expected that, in the next week or so, the league will cancel more games, likely taking them to Dec. 15. That announcement will be greeted with the same doom and gloom you're hearing and reading all over, but again, not the end of the world.

According to The Canadian Press' Chris Johnston, however, the NHL would have been able to play a 68-game season if they were able to start it on Dec. 1. The only thing these new cancellations are going to mean is that we're dealing with a shorter season than that.

Which seems a given anyway.

Both sides here are looking for pressure points, and what this really is is a game of chicken.

"How late can we go? When will the other side get desperate and crack?"

Unfortunately, we're not at those breaking points yet, and the earliest there will likely be any games is mid-December (when the NBA began its own 66-game season a year ago).

But, then again, this is where we were always headed coming into this mess. The negotiations really aren't in any different a place than was predictable and the final agreement is – despite all the rhetoric out there – closer to being realized than ever.

Even if dawn is still a ways off.

(Credit to Renaud Lavoie at RDS for tweeting about the Stern quote earlier in the day.)

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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