Commentary

No winning this lame blame game

Updated: December 17, 2012, 8:19 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

First, let's be a man and admit when we're wrong.

My summer outlook for the NHL lockout months ago was puck drop by mid-December.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Nope, the most illogical and incomprehensible labor battle in the history of pro sports has found a way to drag its way into the holiday season.

Somehow, a deal that isn't that far away at all -- on paper, at least -- is threatening to get worse with the legal battle now under way between the NHL and NHL Players' Association.

The only hope of having any hockey this season is if the looming threat of the union dissolving itself and the two sides duking it out in court provides one last jolt of urgency to the moderates on both sides to try to get over the final hurdles of this deal.

As of Monday morning, however, no talks were scheduled between the NHL and NHLPA.

So what now?

"We will continue to explore options for moving the process forward, and we hope the players' association is doing the same," deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN.com via email Monday morning.

"Time is obviously getting short."

"We are ready, willing, able and eager to negotiate," NHLPA outside counsel Steve Fehr told ESPN colleague Katie Strang on Monday night. "We want to get an agreement and we want to get it done as soon as possible."

There is no official drop-dead date, although most people around the hockey world believe mid-January looms large in that regard.

Commissioner Gary Bettman has said anything less than a 48-game season wouldn't cut it, so you can't drop the puck past January and expect to pull that off, even with hockey in late June, which the league is prepared to do.

Daly Time is obviously getting short.

-- NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly

What is needed at this point is for one side to provide one more compromised offer, one that the moderate representatives could bring to their respective constituencies for a vote. Moderates on both sides have indicated to ESPN.com over the past few days that is how this thing finally ends.

Problem is, they disagree on how to come up with that proposal. The folks on the league/ownership side say it's up to the NHLPA to come up with the next proposal. The players we've talked to tell ESPN.com they believe it's up to the league to provide the next offer.

Picture me now banging my head against the wall. Repeatedly.

At holiday party gatherings over the past week, people from different walks of life approached me and asked just what this labor dispute is about and why it's dragged out so long. I now fumble for an answer. I'm not sure I can even provide a legitimate answer anymore.

I know this: I lay plenty of blame for the decision-making on both sides.

Looking back, the NHL made a terrible strategic mistake back in July with an original offer that asked for players to accept 43 percent of hockey-related revenue, down from the 57 percent it had in the previous deal. I cannot tell you how many level-headed NHL players -- not militants but rather moderates -- have told me repeatedly how that first offer from the NHL in July felt like a punch to the head and galvanized the player membership in a way in which NHLPA executive director Don Fehr likely could have never managed on his own.

That offer set the tone for the level of mistrust that has plagued what should have been a simpler negotiation, the players knowing deep down all along that they'd be accepting a 50-50 split of revenues.

On the other side of things, Fehr is also showing his true colors of late. The longtime baseball union leader seems hard to pin down. It just seems like whenever the league moves on what Fehr deemed a critical issue -- such as funding the "make-whole" provision and then upping it to $300 million -- the NHLPA boss finds new demands to throw the league's way, the latest being his desire to cap escrow as part of the transition rules.

All of which just feeds into the long-held criticism from NHL owners that Fehr can't close a deal.

Let's be clear here: The players have done most of the giving in this negotiation. There's no way you can argue otherwise. But as I've long maintained, that had to be the understood context of this negotiation from Day 1. After labor deals in the NFL and NBA last year in which players backed up financially, it was clear NHL players were going to be subject to the same end result. It's an industry standard you can't escape.

So Fehr's responsibility all along was to make the best out of that negative backdrop. And in many ways, he has. His patience in this negotiation has helped get his membership the kind of offer from the league that I never imagined would ever be available -- $300 million in "make-whole"? -- but there comes a time when you have to know when to cut your losses.

Not having a 2012-13 season will irreparably damage the NHL industry.

And in a comment that I'm hearing more and more from people on the ownership side, I'm not sure the NHL returns with 30 teams on the other side of a lost season. Can the weaker markets truly survive this? That's damage both sides would feel.

I'm not sure it's possible anymore to shake off the emotion that has suffocated logical thought. But here's hoping it is.

Because getting a deal done is the only option that truly makes any sense. Well, at least for anyone who still cares about the game itself anymore.