The sign is on the wall: IT DOESN'T GET ANY BETTER THAN THIS!
It's painted squarely between the NHL's "final" offer of a $42.5 million per team salary cap and the players' association's $49 million counteroffer.
Both sides rejected the other's pitch in a flurry of scornful late-night, early-morning exchanges, the last of which featured NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow once again questioning the NHL's mathematics and ending with the abrupt sign-off: "You will receive nothing further from us."
Of course, in the curious dialect of the NHL lockout "never" means "maybe in a little while" and "final" means "until something better comes along" and no one knows this better than Goodenow.
The union's $49-million counterproposal came in spite of a warning from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman that the league's $42.5-million offer wasn't an invitation to further negotiations.
"It's too late for that," Bettman wrote. "This is our last effort to make a deal that's fair to the players and one that the Clubs (hopefully) can afford. We have no more flexibility and there is no time for further negotiation.
If this offer is acceptable, please let me know by 11:00 A.M. tomorrow, in advance of my scheduled press conference. Hopefully, the press conference will not be necessary."
Maybe Bob didn't get it.
Maybe he was too busy answering obscene phone calls from players around the world who woke up Tuesday to find their union had presented the league an offer with the one component they had always maintained it would never entertain -- a salary cap, albeit a fanciful one with a $52 million limit and a luxury tax component.
Imagine Lois Lane baking Clark Kent a Kryptonite cake and you get a sense of the lines of expectation that were crossed Monday night during secret meetings in Niagara Falls, N.Y.
The fact the league rejected the players proposal didn't matter -- it was the addition of "salary cap" to the union's vocabulary that was so shocking to many.
"There are 700 guys trying to call one number, trying to talk to Bob," Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Brad Lukowich told ESPN.com Tuesday. "My feeling is I'm confused and disappointed. I thought the players were tougher on this."
Turner Stevenson agreed: "I know a lot of players are upset. Just by your initial reaction, why did we sit out all year to do this?"
But Stevenson, Lukowich and most players who spoke publicly insisted they still believe fully in what the players' association bargaining committee is doing and will support whatever recommendation goes forward.
"I think our committee has done an amazing job so far. This is just part of the process," Lukowich added.
Perhaps that's what prompted the players' counterproposal. The union's $49-million offer was a chance for Goodenow to earn back a measure of respect from the membership by trying to squeeze out one last concession.
Instead, Bettman had the players right where he said they would be when the final act in this drama played out -- accepting a salary cap with their solidarity in doubt.
Now, if this were the movies, this would be the part where the hero, standing over his vanquished opponent ignores the crowd's pleas for blood and offers his hand, a gesture of goodwill.
Instead, Bettman wrote back that the league couldn't afford the players' offer insisting that "if every team spent to the $49 million level you have proposed, total player compensation would exceed what we spent last season and, assuming for discussion purposes, there was no damage to the game, our player compensation costs would exceed 75% of revenues."
Goodenow took umbrage with Bettman's characterization of the proposal, insisting the league predicted back in December that 24 teams would be below a $49-million cap.
For months, the two sides could not bridge the gap between the players' refusal to accept a salary cap system and the owners' insistence on linking salaries to revenues.
In the past 48 hours, both sides have shed those philosophical millstones only to replace them with economic blinders.
The issue isn't so much about whether the league's $42.5 million offer is fair, or even palatable, or how much the players will move off their $49 million offer but rather the alternative. What happens if the remaining gap is allowed to turn out the lights on a $2.1-billion industry?
"Once you've crossed that philosophical divide maybe it's not so much what you have (in the offers) but where are you going from here?" offered one prominent NHL power broker, who predicts there is some wiggle room on the NHL's "final" offer. "If I were legal counsel to both sides I would tell them, 'You'd better get a deal done.'"
That same power broker estimated early on that a salary cap of $45 million would get a deal done. Perhaps he's not far off. Last year, the average team payroll was $44,671,000. Given the NHL started out pressing for a hard cap in the mid-30s, $45 million sounds almost like a compromise.
Former Atlanta Thrashers president Stan Kasten said the players have to realize that the non-linkage offer is for a limited time only. It will expire when the season expires, presumably sometime between Bettman's 11 a.m. deadline and his 1 p.m. press conference ... give or take a rescheduling or two.
"This is the last day they're ever going to get a deal without linkage," Kasten told ESPN.com Tuesday night.
If the season is canceled there will be no way to know how much revenues will decline. If the lockout carries into next season, owners will insist on a link going forward to protect themselves.
While that might be true, there are no guarantees that after Wednesday the players will automatically agree to a salary cap again.
Even before the two offers were exchanged Tuesday evening, labor specialist Jeff Citron, who helped hammer out the wording in the last-minute agreement that saved the balance of the 1994-95 season, said he felt there was much work to be done and little time left in which to do it.
But he also felt significant steps had been taken in getting to this point.
"To use Gary's words, they're talking the same language now," Citron said.
If that's the case, one can only hope the two sides take note of the sign, the one that may soon read:
Here Lies The NHL. R.I.P.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.