MANHATTAN – Light at the end of the tunnel seems to blink for a moment only to disappear just as quickly.
With a looming and frightful deadline of January 11 ticking ever closer – league-imposed date to save a 48-game season – the NHL and NHLPA appear to be furiously game-planning for positioning at this late stage in the exhausting lockout process.
Tactics and pressure points are being re-engaged.
Only a day after letting a deadline pass to declare a disclaimer of interest – dissolving the union and driving up pressures on negotiations – the players' association held yet another vote to re-authorize use of such a measure if necessary down the road.
It was a striking turn.
Optimism had been simmering delicately after three consecutive days of face-to-face talks, but by Thursday it was clear that progress had stalled. Perhaps the pressure and impending uncertainty of Wednesday's disclaimer deadline forced the two sides closer together, only to evaporate once the midnight deadline expired.
Evidently, the union sensed a change in tone from the league after the clock struck twelve and thus decided to re-holster the option of disclaiming, thus enacting it if talks were to deteriorate further in the coming days.
The players also asked a New York District Court to dismiss a December complaint filed by the NHL regarding the aforementioned disclaimer, responding forcefully before the January 7th deadline.
In its filing, the players argued that the league's complaint was bogus, citing one potentially damning comment from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman late Wednesday evening. "The word 'disclaimer' has yet to be uttered to us by the players association," said Bettman, perhaps regrettably.
Worn down by the constant battling, bitter feelings and mistrust continue to creep into a process that has dragged on far too long. Evidence of that materialized again with apparent miscommunication on exact terms for hockey-related revenue, terms the players felt were altered without clear notification. The matter was resolved, but frustration bubbled.
Scheduled to continue talks on Thursday morning, the two factions never did meet for full committee bargaining, working internally throughout the day at their respective headquarters. At such a perilous stage, the absence of negotiations was surprising and wholly symbolic of the disjointed process.
Smaller groups from each side did come together for a pair of meetings, focusing on issues such as the aforementioned H.R.R. and player pension fund. Federal mediator Scot Beckenbaugh also met with both parties with further mediation tentatively scheduled for Friday.
While a number of divides continue to separate the sparring factions, three issues now appear to be at the forefront; the pension fund, term of player contracts and the cap number for the 2013-2014 season. The sides are close enough that mending the bridge in a week's time should be entirely logical. Then again, logic has been far from this lockout.
Both parties will push as far and feverishly as they can until the cliff of the final deadline. More stops and starts, peaks and valleys to the process are likely to arise.
111 days into a needless lockout, time continues to tick. The rollercoaster ride drags on.