As the league cancelled the rest of its schedule through Dec. 30 on Monday afternoon, it brought one more reminder of how close the NHL and NHL Players' Association are getting to a make-or-break moment.
Even though commissioner Gary Bettman hasn't set a drop dead date for saving this season, he does believe each team must play 48 games to make it legitimate. For that to happen, the puck will need to drop by about mid-January.
"When it gets to the point where we can't play a season with integrity, with a representative schedule, then we'll be done," Bettman said last week. "If you go back in history, in '94-95 I think we played 48 games. I can't imagine wanting to play fewer than that."
The latest round of cancellations brought the NHL's total to 526 regular-season games — or roughly 43 per cent of the schedule. The Jan. 1 Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium and Jan. 27 all-star game in Columbus have also been wiped away.
Neither the union nor league issued statements after the cancellations were announced.
There had been hope as recently as last week that the lockout could be ended in time to drop the puck over the holidays, with one report suggesting the season might start on Christmas Day. Now the earliest that will happen is New Year's Eve, which was already due to see 13 games played under the original schedule.
Talks between the NHL and NHLPA broke down in dramatic fashion last week. They haven't scheduled any further sessions, although both sides have expressed interest in returning to the bargaining table this week.
There appeared to be hope the start of the 2012-13 season was imminent when NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr met reporters on Thursday night in New York after delivering a new proposal to the league. He claimed the sides had found agreement on virtually all of the key issues.
However, Fehr later returned and said the NHL had rejected the offer and pulled its own off the table.
Despite that, the union leader continues to believe a deal isn't very far off.
"My comments from a couple of days ago stand on their own," Fehr said Saturday after addressing the Canadian Auto Workers in Toronto. "I think we were very close."
Deputy commissioner Bill Daly laid out the three key areas where he felt they remained apart. As part of an offer of US$300 million in deferred payments and a 50-50 split of revenues, the owners wanted:
— a 10-year term for the CBA, with a reopener after eight years (the NHLPA offered eight years, with an option to opt out after Year 6).
— no compliance buyouts, which would allow teams to buy out contracts without being penalized by the salary cap.
— contract term limits of five years for free agents and seven years for a team's own players, which Daly described as "the hill we will die on." The NHLPA proposed an eight-year cap on contracts.
After becoming the first North American sports league to cancel an entire season because of a labour dispute eight years ago, the NHL is trying to avoid doing it again. That round of negotiations stretched all the way into February and saw the sides contemplate making a deal that would save a 28-game schedule before Bettman eventually pulled the plug.
All indications are that the scenario won't be repeated.
Instead, they'll be looking at the timeframe established in 1995, when the lockout ended on Jan. 11 and the puck was dropped on Jan. 20. The regular season ran through May 3 and saw the Stanley Cup awarded on June 24 — thanks in part to sweeps in four of the last seven playoff series.
The most recent NHL cancellations will ensure players are denied two more paycheques, which will bring the total they've missed to six. It's proving to be a costly lockout for all involved.
Progress was made in the last round of talks with Fehr and Bettman left on the sidelines and a new group of owners and players at the table. However, the leaders are likely to be back in the room when negotiations resume.
That's particularly important to the players, who received a chilly reception from owners last week after suggesting Fehr rejoin the meetings.
"I can't envision a scenario, where without the help of mediation or our leadership, that we can close any deal," said Winnipeg Jets defenceman Ron Hainsey. "I don't see how we could do it."