NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, right, is joined by deputy commissioner Bill Daly as he announces the owners reject the latest offer from the players association. (Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)
The ridiculous just became the disreputable.
For the second time in two weeks, the NHL owners and players appeared to make progress toward an agreement Tuesday and Wednesday. Then, after a brief session Thursday, not attended by owners or commissioner Gary Bettman, the players received a voice mail saying their most recent offer is "unacceptable."
A voice mail!
Let them all wallow in their infamy, and let us look forward.
What happened to move things along, before it all came crashing down, again? Bettman finally let some moderate owners, like Ron Burkle of the Penguins and Jeff Vinik of the Lightning, into the room, and the players exhibited a let's-make-a-deal thoughtfulness.
Sidney Crosby reportedly conspired with Burkle about some tactics to temper the disgust and foment discussions. Reasonable voices like Martin St. Louis, who earlier helped create a proposal that included a number of concessions to the owners, were suddenly in vogue.
Finally, at least for 24 hours, it was a different world.
Where was this sensible approach to life, money and hockey last summer? What if they had actually begun negotiating a week after the Kings won the Stanley Cup?
What if they had begun laying the foundation for serious negotiations in the summer of 2011?
Instead, what we have witnessed, and what the good intentions yielded, once again, is the owners' strategy of shock and awe. So much for owning an NHL team for the love of hockey and the opportunity to nurture a public trust.
Nonsense needs to stop
This absurdity, on both sides — although Bettman and the owners are considerably more responsible for this fiasco than the players and Donald Fehr — must cease.
Stopping it is ultimately more important than whether hockey is played this season.
Progressive members of both groups need to make a stand, both to get a deal done and, even after it is signed, to fix the financial model of the NHL.
Even if it means deserting their colleagues and becoming renegades, even if it means meeting in secret beginning next summer, five, eight or 10 years in advance of the start of the next negotiations, reformist elements must emerge, coalesce and begin a new process for labor relations and, perhaps, for operating the NHL.
It has come to that.
The rebels would be accused of treason.
Let the hardliners call it that, if they will. But there once was a guy named Talleyrand, the French statesman who betrayed the Roman Catholic priesthood, the Acien Regime, the French Revolution, Napoleon and the Restoration, all in about 30 years.
"Treason, Sire," Talleyrand said, "is a matter of dates."
In other words, what looks like betrayal today may look like heroism tomorrow.
Burkle is one. Any owner who wears tennis shoes to bargaining sessions may well have the intestinal fortitude and the mischievous spirit required.
But there are others: Vinik, Larry Tannenbaum of the Maple Leafs and Mark Chipman of the Jets.
Ilitch could make name
And let us consider a new man, just to push things a bit: Christopher Ilitch.
At some point in his life, the emerging scion of the family will have to distinguish himself from his parents' enormous reputations, showing that he, too, is a sporting man with a love for the game and his own sense of duty toward the red winged-wheel and the city of Detroit.
What might otherwise take two decades for him to prove to Detroit sports fans, he could accomplish in a bolt of lightning.
Besides, when your family gets the state Senate — particularly this state Senate — to hand them the permission to garner $13 million per year from a nearly bankrupt city, the citizens of Hockeytown deserve a strident effort on their behalf to make sure the damnable league in which they own a franchise is not ruining small businesses downtown every time a collective bargaining agreement expires.
On the players' side, Crosby is ideally suited.
As Ted Lindsay's life reveals, kids growing up in Canada dreaming about nothing but playing in the NHL also know that strengthening the game is a patriotic duty.
Crosby also has a great relationship with Burkle and the Penguins' other owner, Mario Lemieux, so he has some protection.
Besides, in case you have not noticed, the media in Canada will do all it can do to shield Crosby from criticism.
Regardless, if enough moderate players and owners perceive all of this as insanity, they ought to start meeting next summer, someplace off the beaten path.
Newfoundland is quintessentially such a place.
Hey, how about Danny Cleary's house?
With Nicklas Lidstrom retired and Henrik Zetterberg out of town, Cleary has provided a lot of leadership on the home front.
And he has a bit of a mischievous look about him sometimes, does he not?