WHEN PONDERING the NHL lockout, we can't help but think back and draw comparisons to last summer's London Olympics. Play along for just a minute.

Like NHL Players Association executive director Donald Fehr, swimmer Ryan Lochte had years to practice and focus on his impending battle with incumbent and undisputed pool champion Michael Phelps.

Like NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, golden boy Phelps entered London's showdown with his grasp on the sport slipping. His reign was clearly nearing an end after dominating for so long.

Lochte smelled blood in the water. Phelps was strong, but relented. He settled for four gold medals, half his total from 4 years earlier. Lochte stole a gold medal in the 400-meter individual medley, an event Phelps won 4 years earlier.

The end result, of course, was that the challenger cut into the incumbent's bounty and ended up canceling out a majority of the headlines either one of them could have obtained. Phelps was merely mortal; Lochte was impressive but a tad headstrong in his claims as the next heir. Swimming largely became a secondary story in the Olympics.

We are now moving into late November. Monday is the 65th day of the lockout, and the NHL is officially in the deep end of the pool. Hockey is fading in the sporting landscape at a time when, especially in Philadelphia, it would be just beginning to gain steam to power a passionate fan base through the cold winter.

The entire sport is drowning as a result of a power struggle. Players are lashing out, almighty corporate sponsors are lining up for refunds, and as we reported on Saturday, the Flyers are questioning their stomach for it all.

Despite a suggestion last Thursday for a 2-week moratorium in talks, Bettman and Fehr will return to the bargaining table on Monday evening in New York to resuming negotiating after an 8-day hiatus. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Saturday that it was the union's request for the meeting and it is "their agenda." This comes after the NHL has repeatedly criticized the NHLPA for making essentially the same offer "five different times."

The best way to make a deal remains obvious: Present a close to 50-50 split in revenues to provide immediate financial relief to owners, owners honor player contracts already signed, and leave most contracting issues alone.

Instead, Bettman is flummoxed by Fehr, who has kept the league guessing as to exactly what it will take to broker a deal. Fehr's attempts to guarantee raises for players have repeatedly been stonewalled.

Both leaders have used questionable, head-scratching strategies in an attempt to sway public perception - only to turn about-face quickly when met with negative or hostile reaction from fans. For Bettman, last week's 2-week moratorium suggestion comes to mind. Two weeks ago, Fehr said the two sides moved closer toward a 50-50 revenue split and then shortly after reiterated that they remain so far apart. The king of rhetoric has met his prince.

Tit for tat, these two brilliant business and legal minds have gone at each other with tactics that have proven successful in the past. Fehr beat Major League Baseball into submission with the cancellation of the 1994 World Series. Bettman nearly broke the union in 2004-05.

Fehr and Bettman, like Lochte and Phelps, are so used to winning that they have never really ever met an equal on such a big stage. They have kept each other guessing. It really is a perplexing situation to watch them continuously dig deeper into their playbooks.

These headstrong personalities at the top have both sides struggling for progress. Players are rallying around Bettman's actions and not Fehr's leadership.

A fight supposedly just about money has turned into so much more than that. It's a full-on power struggle. The NHL will "win" a revenue-split reduction when this is all over. But it also will be staring down an ugly monster, in the form of the NHLPA, which has flexed its muscles and proved a worthy competitor.

At the start of the Olympics, with the world watching, both Phelps and Lochte were charged with preserving and protecting the prosperity of their sport. Players, fans and owners have entrusted more than 100 years of tradition to two outsiders in Bettman and Fehr. The water is so deep now, and they've spent so much energy flailing their arms in anger, that it has to make you wonder whether even life preservers will save them.

Giroux recovering

Claude Giroux suffered a minor neck injury on Friday night in an overtime loss for the Berlin Polar Bears in Germany.

Despite being sent to the hospital for evaluation after a check to the head, Giroux told the Daily News in text messages Saturday that it was "just a little neck injury" and to "not read too much into it."

Giroux, 24, couldn't guess at a timetable for his return but said he felt fine. Published reports in Germany said he could return to practice as early as Tuesday. He is actively keeping tabs on the NHL lockout, but has racked up 19 points in nine games for Berlin in the meantime.

Slap shots

The NHL's leading goal scorers from the last two seasons, Steven Stamkos and Corey Perry, were added to the lineup for Saturday's charity game at Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall, hosted by Scott Hartnell and the Rangers' Brad Richards. Wayne Simmonds, back from Europe, also will participate, as well as Norris Trophy finalist Drew Doughty. Other Flyers participating include Kimmo Timonen, Jody Shelley and Braydon Coburn. Former Flyers included are James van Riemsdyk, Ville Leino, Dan Carcillo, Steve Downie, Simon Gagne and Steve Eminger. Tickets went on sale last Friday on Ticketmaster.com. Proceeds benefit Hurricane Sandy relief.

" @DNFlyers

Blog: philly.com/FrequentFlyers