Commentary

Only winning move is not to play

Updated: December 17, 2012, 4:07 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

There was a doctrine that became popular during the Cold War of the 1940s and '50s known as mutually assured destruction.

The U.S. and Russia emerged as world super powers, and despite having seen the destruction of the atomic bombs in Japan near the end of World War II, both sides continued to stockpile weapons of mass destruction. The theory was that as long as both countries controlled a similar mass of weaponry and had the capability of using it even after a first strike, neither side would employ such tactics knowing that they, too, would be wiped out.

In short, mutually assured destruction explains a dynamic in which opposing sides never got to war because such a war would be without winners. It explains at least in part why such a cataclysmic battle has never been waged.

Yes, having the weaponry is part of the dynamic, but presumably the knowledge that everything is at stake resulted in clearer vision. If there's nothing left, why push the button?

The NHL and NHLPA might do well do engage in a little history lesson before they continue to totter off down the road toward a war without winners, toward an escalating battle where what or who survives is completely unknown.

As the lockout has dragged on, the two sides have grown further apart both in terms of their demands and in terms of reality, and with that separation more and more extreme measures have been discussed and debated.

The players took the first step in upping the armament ante by asking its membership to vote on whether to give the union's executive committee the power to file a disclaimer of interest with the NHL, essentially dissolving the union and setting the stage for immediate filing of antitrust suits against the league.

The move -- players began voting Sunday and will continue voting through the week -- did not imply that the union would necessarily follow that path but merely implied the threat of taking such a path.

It was yet another shot across the NHL's bow, another message that the players will not back down, that they believe the league has consistently bullied them at the bargaining table and they will take whatever means available to see that they get a fair deal.

The league quickly reacted by filing an unfair labor practice suit with the National Labor Relations Board suggesting that a disclaimer of interest was a sham aimed only at trying to pressure the league into making a better deal with the union.

The league also filed a class action suit in federal court in New York to reinforce that the lockout of the players that began on Sept. 15 is legal. One of the elements of that suit is a clause that asks the court to wipe out all existing contracts if the players are successful in having the union dissolved.

The logic is that since all the player contracts are negotiated under the umbrella of a collective bargaining agreement that was negotiated by the NHLPA and the NHL, if the courts rule that structure has been dissolved, then the contracts negotiated under that umbrella would be null and void.

There is a certain hilarity on both sides of the legal posturing or possible legal posturing.

The union may claim that it can't function as a union because the owners are so intransigent. And yet the system that is now decried by the players is the same one that saw the salary cap grow from $39 million after the last lockout to a shade over $70 million this past summer. Yup. System doesn't work for the players. Not one bit.

The owners, of course, have been hammering away at union leadership, trying their best through various forms of dirty tricks to separate the union from leader Donald Fehr. Now the league's lawsuit insists that everyone is better off with the union intact presumably under Fehr's leadership.

Is anyone happier to see the two sides head in this direction more than the phalanx of lawyers whose meters are running in overdrive? But it's better to pay the lawyers than settle and start making money of your own.

People, this is a game -- a game that created $3.3 billion last season -- and you represent a group that is among the most privileged of all people on the continent. Your legal squabbling takes an already embarrassing legal imbroglio to absurd heights.

And here's the funny part: All of this maneuvering was entirely expected given the current landscape and the urgency to get a deal done to save at least some of the 2012-13 season.

Many hockey observers still believe all of this: the voting on a potential disclaimer of interest and the suits filed in court and with the NLRB is an elaborate final set piece before the two sides breathe deeply and make a deal to save not just some of the current season but maybe the game itself.

Whether or not the past few days are simply part of an ongoing charade of stupidity, they bring us closer to the point of the unthinkable. Forget this season if these two parties step through the legal porthole. Once this goes to court, all bets are off. Antitrust suits could mean irreparable damage to the league and its teams. The union could, of course, fail and be wiped out. What if the league was successful in having all contracts struck down regardless of other rulings? What would the NHL look like? How long would such a battle take? How many teams would be left standing at the end of a protracted legal battle no matter who "won"? Perhaps most importantly, who would care when it was all over with?

Indeed, who cares now?

These are the kinds of questions that have fueled countless doomsday movies and books. Sometimes the madmen -- and there is invariably a madman or two bent on total destruction in these cautionary tales -- is stopped. Sometimes there is an epiphany or a heroic gesture or sacrifice.

In some stories, the ending is much bleaker.

These are the kinds of questions and storylines that should be keeping players and owners up at night.

Goodness help us if they're not.