While we’re all so focused on the NFL, Major League Baseball’s winter meetings and the NBA season, the National Hockey League is in the midst of the nastiest labor despite that professional sports has seen since… well, since the last time the NHL did it in 2004.

The entire season was cancelled as a result of that lockout, and this year has certainly seemed like it was heading in that same direction. The league has already cancelled its entire preseason, 422 regular season games, the Winter Classic that was slotted to be played at Michigan Stadium and the All Star Game. Perhaps a timeline is warranted, but then again, it would end up looking something like this:

  • September 16: Owners concede only an inch in two months of talks, players get pissed and reject it, lockout begins
  • October 18: Players concede three different proposals, owners snub their nose at them, swiftly reject
  • November 7: A return to the negotiating table gets fans excited, nothing happens
  • November 15: Bettman proposes a two-week break from talks, goes on vacation
  • November 23: More games get cancelled, more vendors and local businesses lose money

I think you get the picture.

The common thread in this stalemate appears to be the presence of union leader Donald Fehr and commissioner Gary Bettman. Fehr has been responsible for the handling of past labor disputes, most notably the MLB players strike in 1994 that resulted in a World Series cancellation. As for Bettman? Well, he’s now seen three different labor disputes turn into lockouts under his tenure as the NHL’s commissioner, a fact that should make us all really appreciate Roger Goodell.

The next logical step in this process will be to cancel the remainder of the regular season should no progress be made. With nearly half of the NHL’s regular season already wiped clean, there’s really no way to have a respectable season as it stands. Abbreviating it any further would be pointless; the champion of a season that short would be more irrelevant than the ’82 Washington Redskins or the 1998-99 San Antonio Spurs.

The two sides brought in federal mediators to try and help in the negotiations, but that ended quickly, presumably with said mediators mumbling to themselves “that’s one messed up business,” as they walked out the door. The final turning point, however, came when Bettman and Fehr decided to leave the negotiating table completely, allowing a select group of owners and players to make some real progress towards ending this debacle.

Color me shocked.

Scott Burnside of ESPN.com described the air with Bettman in the room as “toxic” while also saying that Fehr’s “plodding drove league officials crazy.” Certainly a bad combination, and though letting the employees work it out alone was Bettman’s idea, he’s not absolved of wrong-doing should this lockout really end.

Fehr has played his part. He’s a union leader — his sole objective is to drive owners nuts and get more money and benefits for his clients. Bettman, on the other hand, is a commissioner, meaning that his list of tasks are plentiful, although “lose millions of dollars for your industry” is probably nowhere on it.

After a day without the two led to a marathon of “candid talks,” Bettman and Fehr are returning to the table today to help close out a situation that ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun describes as “hanging by a thread.”

One can only hope that the two employ the same wherewithal in re-entering the negotiations that they seemed to have by leaving them. Kevin McGran of the Toronto Star believes that some clever tinkering could give fans as much as a 60-game schedule, but that could all turn into nothing if today’s talks go sour.