One way or another, the question of whether there will be a 2013 NHL season will be answered in the next week. Time to buckle up.
The NHL lockout entered its 111th day Friday, and despite the gloom-and-doom coming from its Manhattan office this week, it does appear that the league and its players association finally are in the final stages of hammering out an agreement -- although it appears there will be some more turbulence before there's a resolution.
At this point, the two sides have spent nearly four months going through a process that has them nearing a deal, but neither side is ready to take the last step to close it. While lost games - and money - haven't provided enough of a push for either side to reach a settlement, both are now ready to use their biggest weapons to try and cajole the other side into sealing a deal.
The NHL's trump card is cancellation of the entire season. After hinting for weeks at what would be the bare minimum requirement for a campaign, the league set Jan. 11 - next Friday - as the drop-dead date in order to get a 48-game schedule under way on Jan. 19. For longtime NHL fans, those dates should sound familiar, as the 1994-95 labor dispute was eventually settled on Jan. 11 and the season started on Jan. 20 - running into early May before the Stanley Cup was awarded on June 24.
For the players, a disclaimer of interest is their main weapon against the owners. While Don Fehr passed on his first chance to use the original Jan. 2 deadline in the midst of talks, the players are reportedly going to set up a new date to re-establish the threat. A disclaimer wouldn't guarantee success for the union, but it would take what appears to be a significant labor win for the owners and add uncertainty to it. The matter would be handled by the courts, and neither side would have much control over the outcome.
Despite the potentially dire consequences of both sides playing their trump cards, it's important to remember that this whole lockout has appeared to be heading toward resolution once the clock began to near zero.
Despite the NHL's threats regarding the NHLPA using the disclaimer, it's important to remember that the NBA's players union filed a disclaimer last Nov. 14, less than two weeks before a deal to end that league's lockout was settled. While the union is taking the official tack that it isn't using the potential legal route as leverage, it's quite clear that after the NFL and NBA Players' Associations used the tactic, the NHLPA certainly is acting as if it feels it's an effective tool to get a settlement.
On the other hand, if the season is canceled, the NHLPA has no recourse to collect lost salaries. While players are well-compensated and up to a quarter of them are playing overseas or in the American Hockey League, there is a limited earnings potential for players, and they won't see that money again.
As political observers saw with the recent 'fiscal cliff' negotiations, the two sides haggled until the last minute - even going past the original New Year's Eve deadline - with chances of a settlement looking bleak even hours before the final bill was passed.
It's also a tactic that's been used in other sports as well. Again, the NBA was reportedly ready to cancel the season just before striking a deal in the wee hours of the morning on Thanksgiving weekend back in 2011.
Even in the new year, the tactics of both sides have become pretty clear. The clock has been run down - even at the expense of the game's increasing popularity and revenue since the last lockout - to reach a final deadline and, at least in theory, reach the best possible deal. Now that the sides have made some progress, there's been an element of stalling to try to get a little more, and both sides have pushed the talks into 2013.
While we are a week away from the NHL's deadline, you can expect both sides to push until they feel they absolutely have to make a deal - even if the negotiations stretch a bit past the NHL's wishes.
For fans, it's important to remember that this back-and-forth is part of the process, and both sides cannot afford to lose a second full NHL season in 8 years due to a labor dispute. While there have been fewer pressure points in this dispute compared to the 2004-05 lockout, the two sides are approaching each other quickly; and while it appears a deal is in sight, it's not going to be a smooth ride to get there.