Season's end a mere formality
Sometime in the next few days, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will stand in front of a crowd of reporters and announce in an appropriately somber tone that the NHL has canceled the balance of the 2004-05 season.
As shocking as it will be to actually hear Bettman utter the words, it will be old news.
The 2004-05 season ended at about 3 p.m. ET on Thursday when the players' union and league officials completed yet another fruitless bargaining session with no plans to meet again, despite Bettman's proclamation Wednesday that season will be canceled if a deal isn't in the works this weekend.
"It was a pointless meeting today," the NHL's top negotiator, Bill Daly, said during a conference call. "I don't know why they asked us to stay over. We didn't cover any new ground today."
Nothing in Daly's tone offered any suggestion of gamesmanship, as if he was trying to bluff the players into a last-second acceptance of a salary cap with doomsday talk.
His voice said the season is over, his words echoed that sentiment.
"At this point, we're kind of out of tricks. We've made every effort to try and get something done with the players' association," Daly said. "We don't have anything left at this point."
His counterpart, NHLPA senior director Ted Saskin, said he felt there was no chance left to save the season.
"I think everybody at the meeting understood the consequences of not making progress today and not scheduling any further meetings," Saskin said. "I think everybody understands what all that means."
It means the season is over, or will be when Bettman delivers the formal eulogy.
It also means this labor war -- one waged around a single, simple issue that is about to reduce a $2.1 billion industry to dust -- will continue.
Daly acknowledged that in the five months the owners have locked out their players, the two sides have made absolutely no progress in bridging the gap over the defining issue of cost certainty.
That lack of progress will underscore whatever comes next.
Soon after Bettman formally announces the season is canceled, the focus will shift to the legal wrangling expected to precede the league's declaration of an impasse, the implimentation of their last offer and the introduction of replacement players. Daly said it's not a certainty owners will try and use replacement players, "but we will look at all alternatives."
In the coming weeks there will be arguments about when talks might begin again, whether they can save the draft, the start of training camp, the start of the 2005-06 season and so on and so on.
Strangely, both sides crossed the threshold Thursday afternoon, knowing their grand failure to reach a settlement will irreparably harm the game they profess to love. Yet both sides did just that, while believing intrinsically that they fight on the side of right.
How pathetic and sad and ultimately misguided.
Thursday's four-hour meeting was simply a microcosm of the damage the two sides have left behind and a harbinger of what lies in the weeks and months and, dare we say it, years ahead.
Worn down and seemingly beaten by the process, Daly said the league was out of creative ideas. It was the league, after all, that had created and presented the last three proposals, one on Dec. 14, one Feb. 2 and one Wednesday.
And technically it's true: the league leads the proposal competition 3-1 since the lockout began in the early hours of Sept. 16. But the league's true creativity has been in spinning the nature of those proposals as opposed to giving them substance. All three have tied salaries to revenues. Any elements that might have established a true partnership with the players, like profit sharing or revenue sharing, were afterthoughts or ill-defined.
In his conference call with reporters, Daly didn't even bother to mention the league's revenue-sharing initiative, which was discussed Thursday. That's not surprising given that Saskin described it as insignificant and called it a sign the teams don't want a partnership with each other nevermind the players.
The players, on the other hand, didn't even try and engage the league in a debate over Wednesday's offer.
The NHL was willing to accept the players' Dec. 9 offer of a luxury tax and a 24 percent rollback on all existing contracts until one of four economic triggers was tripped. After that, the owners' hard cap proposal of Feb. 2 would take effect.
The triggers were so restrictive, the players' system would have almost immediately been disposed. But surely, it would have been worthwhile to see how much wiggle room there was on the triggers. Right?
"If they thought the trigger issues were the problem, I am very surprised they didn't come back and talk about that," Daly said. "They didn't even try."
Saskin said Bettman made it clear the offer was firm, so the union didn't think discussing it was worthwhile.
Daly seemed truly mystified that the two sides had been unable to find middle ground. But this has never been about middle ground. It's been about trying to force the other side to its knees.
And so we wait for the symbolic end. For many, the enormity of what has happened, what will happen and what might happen yet, won't be made real until they hear Bettman's voice.
But rest assured it is real and it is over.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.