"See you in December."
That's what hockey folks keep saying.
Unless they say, "See you in January."
Is there a single person connected to the game who believes the NHL and its players can get a deal done before the current collective bargaining agreement ends Sept. 15?
I think they can.
In fact, I can't think of a single good reason why it shouldn't happen, even though NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr referred Thursday to a "meaningful gulf" between the two sides on the important issue of revenue sharing.
Think of all of the reasons the two sides not only can -- but must -- get together on in a new pact, starting with the $3.3 billion in revenue reported last season, a record for a league that just eight years ago closed its doors for an entire season because the owners were so determined to redefine the labor landscape with a salary cap.
So there's the money, more of it than ever before, and all the two sides have to do is find a way to split it.
And the source of that money presents another compelling reason to get a deal done: fans, sponsors and television.
The fans have turned out in record numbers, the sponsors have followed by committing dollars in record amounts, and the television networks, whose ratings continue to impress, have committed to the NHL and its players long term.
Eight years ago, this league dodged a bullet when it did the unthinkable, turning out the lights for an entire season, including the Stanley Cup playoffs. And remarkably, when those lights came back on in fall 2005, the game was better, the fans returned, and slowly but surely, so did the corporate money.
The NHL did a tremendous job of selling them on this new game and new elements, such as the Winter Classic, wholesale coverage of playoff games, and unprecedented access in the form of products like HBO's wildly successful "24/7: Road to the Winter Classic" reality show.
Since the lockout, we've had seven different Stanley Cup champions.
We saw fans flock to watch the moribund Phoenix Coyotes advance to this past spring's Western Conference finals, then saw the Kings raise their first-ever Stanley Cup in Los Angeles, as hockey once again became cool on the West Coast.
And now the league and its players appear on a collision course. Again.
The NHLPA early next week is expected to produce a long-awaited counter proposal to the wildly one-sided proposal the league first brought to the table almost a month ago. Maybe it starts the process rolling toward a settlement, although if you talk to agents, players, staff and media, there is a disconcerting amount of pessimism that the two sides can find common ground in time to get the 2012-13 season off as scheduled.
Maybe it's the overriding cynicism that in spite of so much good surrounding the NHL, there is still too much greed, too much stubbornness when it comes to finding a way to split a pie that has grown far larger than anyone could have imagined.
At the very heart of this battle between the owners (who simply can't seem to find a system they won't wreck themselves) and the players (who continue to make money hand over fist, courtesy of those owners) is one mighty conceit: The fans will always come back.
This conceit is based on history -- they came back last time -- and it speaks to the unmistakable passion of hockey fans across North America. We're not just talking in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs sell out every night for a team that hasn't made the playoffs since the last time the lights went out, and hasn't won a Cup since 1967. But also in Carolina, where they are itching to get back to the RBC Center to see the remade Canes. Or in Minnesota, where Zach Parise and Ryan Suter put "hockey" back into the "State of Hockey" this summer, in spite of owner Craig Leipold's foolish comments regarding the flaws in the current system while spending nearly $200 million on those two free agents.
Many believe that's the card commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners hold closest to their vests, and why few believe the coming season has any chance of getting off on time: The owners can wait for the players to say "uncle" one more time, because the fans will always come back.
Shame on Leipold, Philadelphia owner Ed Snider, Washington owner Ted Leonsis and the rest if this is truly their quiet strategy: Wait until the players start to feel the pinch when the season should have started, then force them to give up even more than they did eight years ago.
Here's hoping that if one single training camp session is missed, if one single useless exhibition game is postponed, that the fans bite back.
Here's hoping they stay away, because this time they should.
If the league's owners can't find a way to make a system with $3.3 billion of revenue work -- and work on time -- without simply saying to the players "give us this," then they don't deserve these fans.
Remember when the NHL's ice surfaces were painted with the simpering, "Thank You Fans" message after the last lockout? Here's hoping fans remember it and say, "Thanks, but no thanks," especially if fall without hockey stretches into November or December, which is when everyone figures the real pressure points for the players and the owners will come into play.
Surely with so much wealth and so much optimism surrounding the game, the game itself deserves the best effort from its owners and players.
But if the owners and players don't respect what's been built enough to get the deal done, then why should the fans bother?
So here's a suggestion as the clock ticks toward the Sept. 15 deadline: How about a pledge from the owners that they will bargain through the end of the agreement and into the coming season?
The players already have said they are willing to do so.
So how about a commitment from the owners that they will not lock out the players, and a similar commitment from the players that they will not strike?
Bettman said Thursday the owners will not have another season under the current system. Fair enough, but what about a commitment to the fans that they will work until they get a new agreement without having to resort to closing the game's doors once again?
Wouldn't that be the ultimate signal that what the owners and players say is true, that they do want a deal and the fans really do matter?
Unless, of course, that's not what the owners have in mind at all.