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david shoalts

Now that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has ripped the scales of optimism from too many eyes, the only question is: How long will the lockout be?

Will it wipe out an entire season like the owners did in 2004-05 to get the salary-cap system they now say is impossible to work under? Or will the players and owners get a new collective agreement in time to save the Winter Classic on Jan. 1, the event that kicks off the NHL's U.S. television coverage and mega-millions payout from NBC?

Either unpalatable outcome is possible. The players and owners are oceans apart on the key, and perhaps only, issue - whether the money needed to close the gap between the league's rich and not-so-rich teams has to come out of the players' pockets or through revenue sharing.

When Bettman left a short negotiating session with the players in New York on Thursday to say the owners will not open the season without a new collective agreement, it only underscored what has been clear for some time - there will be a lockout when the current collective agreement expires on Sept. 15. That leaves 37 days to cut a deal, which is not enough time considering how far the sides are apart.

"There's a meaningful gulf there," said Donald Fehr, executive director of the NHL Players' Association.

The only surprise is that so many people connected to the NHL - media, players, coaches executives - were optimistic the players and owners could settle their differences by the time the season is supposed to start in early October.

Count Los Angeles Kings defenceman Willie Mitchell among them. Of the owners' first offer, he said: "I don't see it as a legitimate proposal. It's just a non-starter." He's also suspicious of the owners' reporting of their hockey-related revenue (HRR).

However, he still thinks a deal can be reached by Sept. 15, although he admits he is not directly involved in the talks.

"Yeah, I think so," Mitchell said. "Players have a lot to lose, the public has a lot to lose, and the ownership have a lot to lose. It's just all posturing right now."

Bettman stripped away that optimism on Thursday. This goes beyond posturing.

Because the NHL bounced back with seven consecutive years of revenue growth after wiping out an entire season, many owners were convinced they can do it again. With the players better educated this time around and more determined, it is not a recipe for a full season.

The owners' first offer, in which they demanded a 24-per-cent cut in player salaries, is simply a starting position in the negotiations. However, this is far worse than just a low-ball opening shot. In addition to cutting the players' share of revenue to 46 per cent from 57 per cent, the owners also want to redefine the HRR so there is much less in the pot, which would reduce the players' share to 43 per cent.

That's a $450-million (all currency U.S.) haircut from the $1.88-billion the players received from the NHL's preliminary estimate of its $3.3-billion in HRR from the 2011-12 season. The owners also want to increase the eligibility for free agency to 10 years, putting it beyond the reach of the average NHL player, to eliminate salary arbitration and impose five-year limits on player contracts.

It would be folly to think these positions are token gestures by Bettman to move the dial on the players' percentage of the pot. The commissioner is a tough negotiator. No position is given up easily.

When the players make their first major counterproposal on Tuesday, you can expect the owners to dismiss it quickly.

Finally, the optimists also like to say no one, especially the owners, wants a lockout to cost the Winter Classic on Jan. 1. This is now one of the most important events on the NHL calendar, both from a revenue and public-relations standpoint, so the owners will settle in time to save it.

But if you are Fehr and the players, and the owners refuse to bend on revenue sharing, then it would only make sense to stay out as Jan. 1 approaches.

No one should count on seeing any NHL games before the New Year.

With a report from David Ebner