Forget, for the moment, the bizarre circumstances that surrounded last week's negotiations between NHL players, who just want their salaries guaranteed, and owners - wealthy men who have bent on several issues and feel they have reached their limit.

Forget how an NHL podium became a Twitter sensation, how a voice mail between negotiators became an Internet parody, how the owners' leader fired verbal blasts at Donald Fehr's integrity and angrily took the league's last offer off the bargaining table Thursday.

Forget all of that and, if you can find it in your heart to still care about these two sides, remember this: Since the lockout started in mid-September, the NHL and the players' union have never been closer to a labor agreement.


Oh, there's still work to be done, but if you cut through the rhetoric, the sides are not far away, money-wise, on the main issues. And it wouldn't take much for a 48-game season to be saved, with teams starting play in early January.

Games have been canceled through Friday, and the entire month of December figures to soon be erased, perhaps as early as Monday.

That said, if you look past Thursday's unintended comedy show - Fehr, the union's boss, was telling reporters a deal seemed imminent at the same time the NHL left the union a voice mail, soundly rejecting the players' counterproposal - you will see the numbers are starting to come into focus, that the framework for a deal is there.

Gary Bettman, the diminutive NHL commissioner with a mammoth salary despite a history of presiding over labor unrest, ripped into Fehr the other night, saying it was "almost incomprehensible" that the union leader said the sides were close to a deal and that it was "not the first time" he had lied.

Fehr, whose disregard for hockey and its past has become abundantly clear, said the sides had a "complete agreement on dollars."

Problem is, Fehr's "dollars" were based on the NHL's accepting the union's latest terms on the length of the collective-bargaining agreement (eight years, with an "escape" clause after six years) and on the length of individual contracts (eight years, with an "out" after six years).

If those terms were accepted by the NHL, the union would be happy to accept the league's $300 million "make whole" proposal - the money would go toward guaranteeing contracts - and iron out a few other . . . ahem . . . minor issues (including amnesty buyouts) and drop the puck.

The NHL wants a 10-year CBA and a five-year limit on individual contracts (seven years if teams re-sign their own player). In effect, the league wants the five-year limit in place so the owners can control themselves from offering long-term deals (see Rick DiPietro and Ilya Bryzgalov, among countless others) that come back to haunt them.

The league also wants a maximum 5 percent salary increase per year, while the players want a 25 percent variance.

Bill Daly, the deputy commissioner, said the league was only able to boost its "make whole" proposal from $211 million to $300 million because it extended the CBA to 10 years and put a five-year contract limit on the table.

Perhaps. But when you consider the league, by its own estimate, is losing $18 million to $20 million in revenue per day, you would think another compromise would be in its best interest. The same goes for the players, who are reportedly losing $8 million to $10 million per day.

You're making it much too difficult, guys, and your fans may be slow to return.

Before you lose more fans, use some simple math and compromise.

The NHL wants a 10-year CBA and the players want an eight-year pact. Hmmm. There seems to be a number in the middle.

The NHL wants a five-year limit on contracts, while the players are seeking an eight-year maximum. The players should cave a bit and compromise at six years. I realize the middle-of-the-road players' dilemma. They believe that since players' cap hits can't be spread out over a longer period, the stars' hefty contracts won't leave as much of the pie for the lesser players.

The truth is that stars like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Claude Giroux, and Zdeno Chara attract the fans, and even secondary players still figure to draw salaries in the $1 million to $2 million range.

In short, compromise for the good of the game while there are some fans who actually care. And there are plenty of them. Want proof? A podium with an NHL logo was set up in a New York City hotel press room late Wednesday night, starting rumblings that the sides were maybe, just maybe, going to announce a settlement. Some good-natured fan, in anticipation of the news conference, quickly set up an @NHLPodium Twitter account, and it gained a thousand followers in a minute and, heading into the weekend, had close to 16,000 followers.

Yes, despite their growing anger and frustration with the NHL, folks miss their sport.