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Thursday, January 3, 2013
Updated: January 4, 9:18 AM ET
Storm clouds on the CBA horizon?

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- It's the kind of lockout day that breeds all kinds of pessimism and nervous energy from every quarter of the process, the kind of day that suggests disaster lurks around every corner.

Although the two sides are expected to resume meetings Friday morning, the NHL's locked-out players did not show up for a meeting that commissioner Gary Bettman said a federal mediator wanted to start at 10 a.m., instead choosing to update their membership.

Then, after a small group meeting, the afternoon passed without contact while discussions of a new vote by players to re-establish the threat of a disclaimer of interest raised more questions about the strategy, and if the players had erred in not announcing they were disclaiming interest Wednesday evening, thus dissolving the union.

Pierre LeBrun of ESPN.com reported early in the evening, as it turns out, that the players would indeed vote to once again give the union's executive committee the power to file a disclaimer of interest. The vote, which passed overwhelmingly the first time in December, is expected to be completed in 48 hours.

A number of players told ESPN.com they were unhappy with the league on a number of issues, including trying to alter penalties to teams that are caught trying to circumvent reporting revenues for the purposes of defining hockey-related revenues. The wording, part of the previous CBA, was later reinstated after a period of discussion, which might otherwise have been better served tackling other issues.

The kerfuffle -- were the owners trying to screw the players by altering the wording or did the players miss the changes for several days after the offer was first filed Dec. 27? -- was yet another illustration of the tenuous nature of trust that exists -- or doesn't exist -- between the two sides. At such a critical juncture, it took on a greater life than it likely deserved.

Small groups also discussed the contentious issue of funding the players' pension fund into the early part of the evening, an issue the players believed had been resolved some time ago.

Meanwhile, the league remained unhappy with a lack of traction after the league offered to add one more compliance buyout before the start of the 2013-14 season to help teams get under a proposed $60 million salary cap.

The players would prefer the Year 2 cap go up to $65 million, even though that could drive up escrow payments.

And so instead of seizing on what many believed were some positive steps from a lengthy series of meetings on Wednesday, it led instead to an uncomfortable idleness. Too many long hours of tweeting and fretting and eating donuts and wondering about the process led many to speculate that perhaps the process was sliding off the rails.

Indeed, in the long hours that passed without any of the meetings and caucusing that had marked the previous three days left instead a sense of foreboding.

The challenge on both sides is to not let this one murky snapshot obfuscate the important reality on which this lockout will ultimately turn, and that is this: failure is simply not an option.

Failure, of course, would be to see a second season in the past eight years go down the drain.

As angry as the players were on Thursday, it would be a monumental failure for union executive director Donald Fehr and his constituents to lose this season as the deadline approaches to save a 48-game schedule.

Are the players prepared to teach the owners the ultimate lesson and file a disclaimer of interest to dissolve their own union sometime in the next three or four days, thereby driving up the possibility that the season is lost? Some players believe they should have played the disclaimer card Wednesday night. When the mandate is given again, some believe they must use it.

Those are tough internal questions to ask, let alone answer, but that issue must be tempered by the knowledge that failure is likewise not an option for Bettman.

The commissioner already has one lost season on his watch and there is no way owners will stand still for another one over pension issues or adding a couple of million dollars to the salary cap next season, or even adding another year to contract term caps.

That simply isn't going to happen and the fact the league has moved on a number of issues it said it would never move off, such as a five-year cap on contract length and the amount of "make-whole" money to guarantee player contracts, is Exhibit A in the case supporting that fact.

Long, bleak days like Thursday suggest it's not just possible but perhaps likely the unthinkable could happen again and that a season will be lost.

But the big picture, the reality that in the end neither side can afford to go down that path, suggests otherwise.