"They're going home, Harry."
That line is a favourite of those who like to mimic the great Bob Cole, who has called games for Hockey Night In Canada for several generations. It came in the middle of an exhibition game between the Philadelphia Flyers and the former Soviet Union's national hockey team in the 1970s when the Soviets left the ice in protest of the rambunctious play of the Flyers. Nitpickers point out to the amateur mimics that Harry Neale did not become Cole's sidekick until the 1980s.
But Friday's withdrawal of the NHL owners' most recent offer of a collective agreement to the players means about as much as that brief walkout by the Soviets did. When it was pointed out to the heroes of Communism they would not get paid if they didn't play, they were soon back on the ice.
I cannot make any similar promises about today's well-heeled warriors but the league's action is merely semantics. It keeps people's attention on their self-imposed deadline of Thursday for a new agreement or it will not be possible, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said, to play an 82-game season.
Well, not really. There is still at least some time to get 82 games in, although it is drawing short. If not, the NHL would have formally started cancelling things like the Winter Classic and the all-star game but it has not, although that decision, too, is getting close.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly admitted as much, although he did point out that withdrawing the offer had a practical basis as well. It was based on calculations like an annual five-per-cent growth in revenue, which may not be possible if 2012-13 turns out to be yet another truncated or lost season.
"This proposal no longer works because it was a proposal to save 82 games," Daly told ESPN.com. "We have to re-think where we are, and what type of season we're looking at, and we have to formulate and construct a proposal that makes sense for the reality of where we are."
NHL Players' Association executive director Donald Fehr told ESPN.com he's been around long enough to see this before. It's nothing to get excited about, he implied.
"This is a standard approach," Fehr said. "I think it was done in the NBA in the same way.
"Review the history here: They make a proposal, it's essentially a take-it or leave- it, we respond on the core economics, they take 10 minutes and say no. They tell all the players if we're agreeable to everything except the make-whole [provision], including all the stuff that's in there, I can give Gary a telephone call. And then we have made several efforts, including [Wednesday], to say we're prepared to sit down and negotiate with no pre-conditions. They essentially said 'No.'
"It takes two to negotiate. They seem to be really good at imposing deadlines and issuing ultimatums and having lockouts. It seems to be something they're well-practiced at."
That last crack was a sly dig at the fact this is the third lockout in Bettman's reign as commissioner and the second in the last seven years.
There is no doubt another lost season like 2004-05 will seriously damage the game in the United States, probably enough to make it a fringe sport forever. It is also outrageous that both sides seem prepared to do it.
My best guess is the owners and players still have at least two weeks to figure out how they are going to arrive at a 50-50 split of NHL revenue and save an 82-game season. Squeezing those games into the calendar to end the playoffs at the end of June will undoubtedly compromise the players' health, but given the money at stake they are not likely to refuse.
These are perilous times for hockey but the end times are not quite here yet.Report Typo/Error