The NHL labor war is crawling toward a conclusion, but no one knows whether the ending will put the players back on the ice. Or just ice the season.
Optimists say the stalemate will come into focus after the players' vote on dissolving the union is finalized Thursday. The results may not be known until Friday, and the players would have until Jan. 2 to file the "disclaimer of interest."
Pessimists say the vote may trigger a long legal process that could spell the end of the 2012-13 season.
Thursday was the 95th day of the lockout, and the sides had not had any face-to-face meetings since last Thursday.
Games have been canceled through Dec. 30, and more cancellations could come this week.
"It disappoints me and saddens me because it's just more days lost," Bill Daly, the NHL's deputy commissioner, said in an e-mail to Canada's QMI Agency. "But I'm not sure what [the] meeting does from our side. There is nothing left to give."
Daly said Donald Fehr, executive director of the players union, "is aiming toward a 'deadline' showdown."
The question is: What's the deadline?
The deadline for salvaging a partial season depends on when the regular season ends. It is scheduled to end April 13, but the 1995 regular season - delayed by a lockout - did not start until Jan. 20 and finished May 3.
Daly did not answer an e-mail from The Inquirer that asked whether the NHL could extend the regular season past April 13 - or whether it was locked into that date because of TV commitments for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
If the season had to end April 13, then a 14-week, 48-game campaign would have to start about Jan. 5. That would put the deadline for a new collective bargaining agreement at Christmas, giving players time to return from Europe and have a short training camp.
If the end of the regular season can be pushed back, the season can start later. Daly said Wednesday the season must start by mid-January to have a 48-game schedule.
For the time being, however, the negotiations have stopped.
In a five-day online voting process that ends Thursday, the players will decide whether to ask their executive board to dissolve the union. A two-thirds majority is needed, and it would give the players the ability to file a motion in the courts and claim the lockout is illegal.
Locked in a labor dispute with the owners last year, NBA players voted to disband the union but worked out a new agreement 12 days later.
After it learned of the players' plan to dissolve the union, the NHL filed a class-action suit Friday to block the disclaimer.
If the NHL cannot prove to the courts that the lockout is legal, it wants all contracts to become void, making the players unrestricted free agents.
That would be chaotic, to say the least.
The league, which has added $300 million to the players' "make whole" provision, wants a 10-year collective bargaining agreement and a five-year maximum on individual contracts - seven years if teams re-sign their players. The players want an eight-year CBA and an eight-year maximum on individual contracts.
There are also issues over amnesty buyouts (the players want them, the owners don't), caps on escrow, and the salary cap's ceiling.