It appears that today, the crunch will finally come.
At an undisclosed location in New York, National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman, NHL Players' Association executive director Bob Goodenow and a couple of their closest lawyers will meet to put the long-suffering 2004-05 season out of its misery.
Yesterday, the players rejected yet another reworking of the NHL's hard-cap proposal.
Therefore, barring a miraculous conversion to a free-market economy on the part of the league, there is no further hope for the season.
Without getting into the merits of either argument, it has been evident from the beginning of these negotiations, such as they were, that Bettman's people wanted a hard cap and Goodenow's people would not accept it. It should be fairly obvious, therefore, that if the players wouldn't accept one salary cap, as in the initial proposal, their chances of accepting three, as in yesterday's proposal, were uncommonly slim.
This latest offer has a hard cap at the player level, the team level and the league level.
In December, the players proposed a deal they thought would give the NHL a workable framework. The NHL took that offer -- the 24% rollback, the entry-level limits and so on -- then added their hard caps to it and sent it back.
The players, as everyone knows, are not interested. They felt they had made serious concessions in December and that their conciliatory gesture had no been reciprocated.
Yesterday, in a rare example of finding common ground, both sides agreed it was time to hold a conference call.
So they did. Separately.
Bill Daly presented the side of the owners, Ted Saskin spoke for the players.
Neither was particularly optimistic. Saskin said the NHL's latest offer was merely a variation of the offer the players turned down last week except for some changes that were "very minor and cosmetic."
Daly conceded "the framework is something they have continuously indicated they are not willing to accept."
Said Saskin: "They haven't really made much change from their position of Dec. 14."
Each was asked how much time is left and each gave a loquacious response. Translated from lawyerese, it is this.
"Maybe a day."
Today, Goodenow and Bettman are back together for the first time this year. They are back in the mix for same reason that Wellington and Napoleon showed up at Waterloo but not some of the earlier skirmishes. At the final battle, the supreme commanders have to make the decisions.
The players want to get on with their lives. In two of the European leagues, the transfer dates have passed, and there still are a number of other players who want to go abroad once the season is officially over.
There also are players who don't want a settlement now simply in order to salvage the integrity of the league. Daly admitted yesterday there could conceivably be a settlement which would see a team play fewer regular-season games than playoff games.
You can imagine how that goes over with guys who played their guts out to get their name on a Stanley Cup.
Daly also said the league's proposal would not allow grandfathering.
The hard caps would have to be met immediately. So the wealthy teams would virtually have to give away a bunch of high-priced players in the two weeks prior to the shortened season. Again, the integrity of the game would take a beating.
Today, the two sides will meet with the intention of negotiating. But once again, neither will come off its basic position.
At that point, there's only one way to terminate the meeting.
With the termination of the season.