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NHL lockout seems all but certain

To paraphrase the silver-tongued Yogi Berra, "It ain't over, but it's over."

With union boss Don Fehr's announcement that talks with the league have "recessed" and no further meetings are scheduled, we can start counting down the days until the start of an NHL lockout.

It took all of 90 minutes Friday afternoon for the two sides to conclude that the player response to an offer tabled by the league on Wednesday was something less than conciliatory. The union wanted to talk about changes to the fourth year of their proposal. The league saw no point in going there if they couldn't agree on how to deal with the first year.

"There's nothing scheduled because ... there was really no substantive movement on the economics," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said before adding, apparently with a straight face, "Someone needs to say something new."

That's funny. "Something new" is exactly what Fehr and the union brought to the table in the first place. They've been trying to fight the good fight from the start. But Bettman's feeble protest aside, this was never about a desire for bigger ideas and broader concepts.

It was never about finding common solutions.

It was never about breaking a short-term cycle that practically invites labor unrest.

It was never about improving the game or a shared responsibility to shore up struggling franchises It's about crafting a deal so idiot-proof that even the weakest franchises can make a profit and thus increase their market values, which is the ultimate goal of every owner. And it will be accomplished by paying far less than full value on contracts the owners supposedly negotiated in good faith.

So much for something new.

I admit I got sucked in when I first saw the players' proposal. I actually thought it might work.

It showed a nuanced recognition of the problems facing the industry and offered an innovative solution that involved a sharing of responsibilities for the league's overall health through an industry growth fund. It wasn't perfect, but it was a worthy starting point that reflected a level of creativity and rationality that's been missing from previous labor altercations. Everyone who worked on it can be pleased with what they crafted.

But no matter how much they believed in the viability of their approach, they had to know it would be rejected out of hand.

Because no matter how often they've heard the term since the last lockout, they're not partners with the league. They're a means to an end. And they don't have the guns to win this fight. No doubt the PA has changed since Fehr took charge. As a group, they're better informed and more intimately involved in the process. And they're certainly more unified than they've ever been, thanks as much to the galvanizing impact of Bettman's ludicrous initial proposal as to Fehr's internal efforts to bring them together.

But none of that really matters. If they want to play hockey this year, it's up to the players -- many of whom suffered through this same charade seven years ago -- to change their approach. A lockout looks unavoidable but there's still time, lots of it in fact, to come to an agreement that allows the season to start on schedule. But as Bettman noted, Sept. 15 is more than an artificial deadline. Once that date passes "damage to business changes the dynamic of relationships."

In other words, that's when they start applying the screws.

The players tried to reason their way out of this beating, but they only delayed the inevitable. Whether it's called a rollback or an escrow payment, it's coming.

Unless they've got something else new up their sleeves ...

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