It wasn't going to end sooner. It could've ended worse.
In this lockout, both the NHL and NHLPA lost individually – the players millions of dollars, the owners more than that – as they each hope to win many millions more. Both of them lost with fans, sponsors and media – in their standing and reputation, in public mythology and in the place they hold. Neither side lost or won as between themselves.
Gary Bettman and the owners wanted to destroy the NHLPA as they had done in 2004. They needed to bring hockey-related revenues to a 50-50 split with the players, and to close salary-cap loopholes that had been opened by teams looking for a competitive edge. The players wanted to hold on to gains that had resulted unexpectedly from the 2004 agreement. They needed to give back as few of those gains as possible, and above all, to hold together.
At some point in the negotiations, I think both sides realized they weren't going to get what they wanted, but both could get what they needed. I think both also realized that beyond their day-to-day, sometimes frustrating, sometimes angry dealings, there was one final need. They probably knew it at the beginning, got distracted from it, then in the last month or so were hit between the eyes by it. They needed a season. 2004 had been bad but had almost been forgotten until recent weeks. And as 2004 was remembered, so too was 1994. Three work stoppages in less than 20 years; one lost season, maybe two. This became the story. This loomed as their legacy.
I don't know whether Bettman and Fehr ever talked about this. I'd like to think they did. They probably didn't. They probably didn't need to. They knew, and they knew the other guy knew. There were going to be skirmishes over 0.5 per cent more of this or 0.73 per cent less of that; there would be strategic moves – the players' vote to potentially decertify their union, for example. But at the point after which there could no longer be a season, there would be a season. There needed to be a season.
What happens next is in the hands of fans, sponsors and media. The players will spring onto the ice like sprinters out of their starting blocks. They will suffer more pulled muscles, more bruises and cuts from ill-timed attempts to block shots as they try to do more than they can do. There will be ownership "gestures." But how much will fans punish them both? For most teams it takes only the last 5 or 10 per cent of the fans in an arena to make the economics of a team work – or not. If only a few people stay away, the effect is great. For a fan, the question: How can I spite my face without cutting off my nose?
And the question for later: 10 years from now this deal will expire. In eight years, either side can opt out of it. By that time, it's unlikely Gary Bettman or Donald Fehr will be around to negotiate a new collective agreement. Few of the same owners and few of the same players will be at the table. In the next year or even over several years there may be economic consequences for owners and players from this lockout. But at some point during those eight or 10 years, things will turn upward. Both sides will make more money than ever. And both sides will begin the next negotiations full of themselves, and full of years of grievances against the other. There are lessons to be learned from this 2012 lockout, but they will almost surely be forgotten.
What I hope for both sides, what I hope for everyone, is that when Bettman and Fehr walk out of their offices for a final time, that they pass on to their successors a hard drive full of records, but also a file – hard copy – of the events of 2012. For Bettman and Fehr to say to their successors, "Read this." This is how it was. Going into the next negotiations we as owners and players need to know what we need and we need to know what the other side needs. But as we get into the muck of the deal, as we develop a hate for the other side, we also know there is a final need. It's our need and it's their need too, because it's the public's need. We are truly not the only ones who matter. There needs to be a season.