The NHL and the players' union appear to be getting closer to an agreement that would salvage a 48-game season.

If they don't settle, the league will suffer irreparable harm and it might take years for hockey to be considered a major sport again.

That's why the NHL made some concessions the other day, trying to save a partial season and stop the waves of apathy fans are riding.

For months, the league and the players' union have outsmarted themselves, playing a game of chicken and waiting for the other side to cave in.

But now, with a league-created Jan. 11 deadline almost here, the sides must get serious. They now have two options: sign a collective bargaining agreement or say goodbye to an entire season for the second time in nine years.

It seems incomprehensible that both sides would lose another season and squander about $2 billion in revenue, which is what might be generated if a 48-game season were salvaged.

Give the NHL credit for stepping forward and trying to get the players back on the ice. The league made a handful of concessions, including one on the length of player contracts (increasing them to a six-year maximum; seven years if teams re-sign their own players), and agreeing to amnesty buyouts before next season. The parties had a conference call Saturday and tentatively plan to meet face-to-face Sunday for the first time since Dec. 13.

For the time being, Donald Fehr, executive director of the union, is expected to continue his Grinchness and complain that the owners need to significantly boost their proposed $60 million salary cap for 2013-14, which is down from $70.2 million (to be prorated over 48 games) this season. He is also expected to dourly explain that the owners' agreeing to one amnesty buyout per team next season is insignificant because the money comes from the players' 50 percent share of hockey-related revenue.

Oh, and we presume he will find a few other things he doesn't like.

It is expected that Fehr will fight for every nickel before finally getting a deal done around Jan. 11, when there is no more time to negotiate. That would enable the season to start Jan. 19.

If a new CBA is in place on Jan. 11, it will have taken nearly four months of watching Fehr - who, amazingly, wasn't ready to negotiate early in the summer, saying he needed more time to prepare - and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman tarnish the league and their legacies.

 Judging by what has transpired during the 106 days of the lockout, it's clear Bettman and Fehr have one thing in mind: showing the other who is boss.

It's time for them to check their egos at the door and compromise for the good of the sport. This shouldn't be about who is the  winner. It's too late for that. Way too late. Both sides are losers in what really matters - the opinion of fans who foot the bills for the millionaires and billionaires.

By arguing how to divide $3.3 billion in a troubled economy, the NHL and the players have lost fans by the tens of thousands. It's time to compromise before a total fan revolt, before their apathy gives the NHL a bigger problem than trying to conquer Fehr.

The players have to understand that the NHL, because it overexpanded (bravo, Mr. Bettman) and has numerous teams losing money, is not the cash cow they think. The union should concede on the maximum lengths of contracts (now up to six years) and the length of the CBA (10 years, with a mutual opt-out after eight years). The owners have to realize that the players signed contracts in good faith, and they need to make concessions in other areas, perhaps increasing the cap from $60 million to at least $65 million for next season. That leaves more money to be spent on the players and reduces their escrow hit.

The sides have less than two weeks to show what's more important: winning for their side, or compromising for the greater good of the game. Bettman and Fehr should  not think if their side "caves" it will be a sign of weakness.

To the contrary, it will be viewed as a sign of maturity. And that's something we haven't seen - except for the day Bettman and Fehr were kept out of a (productive) meeting - in the last 106 days.

It's your move, gentlemen. Your legacies - and the league's integrity - depend on it.

Inside the Flyers: Lockout Scorecard

Here's a look at how the NHL and the players' union stand on several issues:

Issue   Importance   How close to agreement

Hockey-related revenue    Very    Seem agreeable

Length of player contracts    Very    Fairly close

10% variance per yr in contract    Somewhat    Not close

Length of CBA    Very    Fairly close

Amnesty buyouts    Somewhat    Not close on some aspects

Escrow caps    Somewhat    Not close

Teams' cap limit    Very    Not close

Free agency, arbitration rules    Very    Seem agreeable

"Make whole" provision    Very    Seem agreeable

Breaking up union    Seen as NHLPA ploy    NHLPA can file thru Wed.

- Sam CarchidiEndText