ENTER THE mediators - or, rather re-enter. And maybe this is where the NHL and its union make the deal. Maybe, after the progress of last week was buried in angry rhetoric, this is what the two sides now need: a fig leaf to hide behind as they take the last tentative steps toward an agreement.

Somewhere, Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr are plotting the endgame. They have to be. Unless the owners are hellbent on total victory or Fehr has some kind of messianic view of this transaction, the compromise is there to be made. Unless they are crazy, the season will not be canceled. Repeat: will not.

It has been thought for weeks now that they needed some kind of a deadline, or some kind of new pressure point (like union decertification), to provide the final impetus. But last week, when Bettman concocted the scheme that had players and owners negotiating face-to-face, without their leaders, and when the owners sweetened the league's offer with an extra $89 million and other concessions, it clearly moved the sides closer than they have been.

It might be that they still need a deadline. It is possible that the bargaining relationship between the players and the owners remains so immature, and the concessions being sought by the owners remain so large, that nothing short of imminent annihilation will bring closure.

But, maybe not.

Maybe, the fig leaf.

Talks are set to resume Wednesday; undisclosed city, no media, all good. Mediation could be the proper mechanism now if both sides are ready. The owners moved with their most recent proposal. No one talks much about the union's counterproposal - it was buried beneath the acrimony - but the suspicion is that it likely contained some things the owners like.

When personalities become an issue - and it is a fair guess at this point, given the progress that was made when Bettman and Fehr were out of the room - mediation can help. It is probably fair to say that Fehr has been moving the goalposts, stalling for time, waiting for the best deal - and, well, if the union is ready, a mediator can work to root those goalposts so that, if the owners need to talk another step, they can be more confident that Fehr will not back out at the last minute.

Put it this way: If the owners still feel they cannot pin down the union after this, then they do need to set a deadline for canceling the season. If this mediation does not work, that is all they have left.

There was a chance, back when, that the opening of the regular season would have provided that deadline - because there really is so much more money involved for the NHL and so many more good things going on in their business than the last time the two sides fought. Of course, that would have required a significant moderation in the owners' demands. And while there was some moderation, the union did not see enough. It is not hard to see their side of that argument. Fehr did not sign on to surrender.

There has been no meaningful deadline since then. The owners tried to introduce one when they canceled the Winter Classic, but it did not work. The owners have tried a lot of things but they believe Fehr has remained a moving target.

Why? Because the union is in the position, based upon the reality of power, where it is going to have to give back a lot of cash in this negotiation. Everybody acknowledges that much. It is a league of haves and have-nots, and the have-nots need help, and the NHL has the power to demand that the union provide the help by rolling back the salary cap, just as the NFL and NBA did. That's just the way it is.

This needs to be repeated: There is no right side in this dispute and there is no wrong side. It is a business negotiation, period. Both sides are using their power to get as much of the money as they can. The owners are not evil for seeking to roll back salaries, just as the players were not evil when salaries were skyrocketing under previous deals, or for trying to hang on to everything they can in this deal.

For the sake of the fans - and given the lost season the league endured in 2004-05 - you would like to think that the relationship might have matured by now. But here we are. You can fixate on the messy road they have traveled, but it is better to focus on the here and now - undisclosed location, media blackout, mediators in place. It is starting to feel like time.

On Twitter: @theidlerich

Columns: philly.com/