It’s going to take a week or two, and there will inevitably be some turbulence en route, but it’s almost certain there’s going to be at least a chunk of this NHL season that actually gets played.
That’s clear now. The bizarre scenes of NHL and NHL Players’ Association executives holding press conferences on the streets of Manhattan surrounded by New Year’s Eve revelry Monday night were as significant as they were surreal, heralding an exchange of actual proposals instead of empty rhetoric.
There’s a deadline, and there’s common ground, and there’s the framework of a deal. The owners have their financial concessions. The players have their self-respect back – and, through Donald Fehr’s infuriating-but-effective stall tactics, probably gotten more out of the NHL than Gary Bettman ever imagined when he planned this lockout.
It was always going to be a bad deal for the players, but the deal they’re going to end up signing this month contains some vital elements that will soften the blow. How soft is one of the few areas still being debated, but at least there’s debate under way. The two sides met yet again on Wednesday, and with a mid-January deadline for a 48-game season or thereabouts, there’s no time to lose.
Given the combustible personalities involved, there’s still a chance this could all fall apart. That’s always a consideration. If that does happen, having come this far, it would be as moronic as it would be tragic. Still, collapse appears less likely at this moment than at any time during these negotiations, and a settlement more likely – not that a settlement makes everything OK.
The damage to the league’s reputation and bottom line has been savage, the depth of it highlighted by the Winter Classic that wasn’t played in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Tuesday. But playing even an abbreviated season is exponentially better than sacrificing an entire season, again, for gains that are marginal at best.
The Carolina Hurricanes have lost season-ticket holders and they have lost stature in the market, and they have hurt all the people who depend on them for a living by being a willing participant in Bettman’s lockout plan.
They’re also in a position to recapture some of the optimism that surrounded the team over the summer, and if Kirk Muller can get the Hurricanes off to a quick start, all may be quickly forgiven. Significantly, the players have stepped up their workouts at Raleigh Center Ice, just in case, and across the league players are starting to return from Europe.
For a while, Sunday’s Charlotte Checkers game at PNC Arena looked like it would be as close as the arena would get to a Hurricanes game. Now, it looks like a warm-up act for the big show that will return to the stage not long after.
First, though, it’s up to Bettman and Fehr to hammer out the deal that appears all but inevitable now. There are no excuses. It’s time to get it done. It’s time to get back on the ice and see what happens next.