There is nothing to do now but regroup. What choice do the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association have now? Intense negotiations early this week fueled optimism that the ongoing lockout might soon end – until those talks imploded in spectacular fashion on Thursday night.

Both sides described Tuesday’s session as their best day of negotiating since the lockout began on Sept. 15. Then, for almost 24 hours, reports from New York about the tenor of their exchange became increasingly negative. But NHLPA executive director Don Fehr held a press conference in the early evening Thursday claiming the two sides had agreements on several key issues and that “there wouldn’t seem to be very much reason why we shouldn’t be able to conclude an agreement in the near term.”

Hallelujah! And then it all fell like a house of cards. Within the hour NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly conducted a 32-minute press conference where they denied Fehr’s claims and disputed him in great detail. Statements expressing disappointment were also released from the each of the four moderate owners brought into the process this week in the hopes they could better make the NHL’s case – Winnipeg’s Mark Chipman, Toronto’s Larry Tanenbaum, Pittsburgh’s Ron Burkle and Tampa Bay’s Jeff Vinik.

And so what briefly looked like imminent victory instead turned into a nightmare scenario. It is Dec. 7 – a day that will likely pass without formal talks – and the cancelation of an NHL season for the second time in eight years crept closer to reality. The reasons for the breakdown shouldn’t matter to the average fan who just wants to watch hockey. They are tedious and charged with ego and hidden strategy and public posturing and ever-changing demands.

The owners say what matters most to them is the length of the new CBA, a limit on the length of player contracts – “the hill we will die on” as Daly bluntly put it – and compliance issues, which are the rules that keep clubs from circumventing their own system, the amount of money players return if revenues drop (escrow) and could also include one-time amnesty buyouts.

Unfortunately, owners claim they have no idea what really matters to the players because that keeps changing. Is it player pensions, avoiding restrictions on free agency or salary arbitration or changes to the entry-level system? Fehr would say all of that matters, of course. It is the give-and-take of collective bargaining and it is an ugly business. In the end, the details are for the two sides to work out.

What matters to hockey fans is whether the leadership of the NHL and the NHLPA can put anger and frustration and ego aside and make a deal. Can they figure out what the other side is willing to accept – not what it wants – and offer the concessions necessary to get there? You listen to the rhetoric from both sides and it is hard to maintain optimism. The last, best hope is that the folks doing the bargaining ultimately get it. Does the sport matter enough to them to put everything aside, including sometimes their own best business interests? That judgment will be rendered soon. For now we have only their words, not actions, to go by.

“Listen, collective bargaining is hard stuff. And sometimes it’s made even harder depending on the goals and objectives that people have and organizations have,” Bettman said on Thursday night. “But the fact is you have professionals in the room and, most importantly, be it the players or the owners or the people who work for the league and the clubs, you have people who love this game in the room and want to get it back on the ice as soon as possible.”

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