December 16, 2012 at 6:25 pm

Gregg Krupa

With tactics coming to a head, fate of NHL season will be known soon

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners have opted to try to frustrate the players association during negotiations in the latest lockout. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

It will help, or it will not.

We will know within the next three weeks. That is the time remaining for the NHL and the players to cut the Gordian knot they have fashioned with their tactics throughout a two-month lockout, and play a harshly-abbreviated 48-game season.

The players intend to, in effect, disorganize so that they may sue the NHL. The league responded late Friday afternoon by going to federal court in Manhattan to block them and to the National Labor Relations Board to have the maneuver declared bargaining in bad faith.

At least it would be nice to think that might mean a resolution is closer.

It might be. But, then again ...

Discouraged? It is hard not to be.

Just when fans thought this all despicable enough to require only their revulsion, it gets more revolting.

It is as if Gary Bettman and the owners have declared, "We have record revenues, but our business model remains so dysfunctional it cannot be sustained. We can't discuss our problems rationally, let alone across a table — especially with that guy Don Fehr around — so let's have a judge fix it."

Sound like a plan?

Sure, if you are two four-year-olds fighting over a Christmas toy and asking mom to mediate. But not for grown men entrusted with the operation of what many of its fans believe is the world's greatest sport.

Old business

Make no mistake: No one ever planned to fix things here.

The strategy of Bettman and the owners from the start was to frustrate any sense on the part of the players that negotiating might be worthwhile, endeavor continually to separate them from Fehr, act like they are really, really angry, and then go to court.

It is right out of the playbook of the recent lockout in the NBA. In fact, some of the same lawyers are involved.

Nice when you can bulk-up those billable hours by pointing to work you already did the last time you closed down a sport, instead of doing actual work.

When it comes to representing professional sports leagues, they call that "practicing law."

What is a fan to do? Or a downtown business owner depending on six-months of hockey at Joe Louis Arena to remain open and put food on the table back home?

The hopeful will take encouragement from the fact that when the National Basketball Players Association began to disorganize the 2011 NBA lockout was lifted in 11 days, with a new collective bargaining agreement.

The hopeless will take discouragement from the fact that the NHL filing in federal district court in Manhattan late Friday afternoon may require the NHLPA to decertify rather than "disclaim interest," a bit of legalese bound to frustrate any NHL fan beyond words at this point.

What that might mean, however, is most unfortunate.

Instead of taking several days to obtain a disorganized state sufficient under the "disclaiming" process to show in court that it can now sue the NHL instead of bargaining with it, it may take two months to run through the "decertification" process, instead.

So, are things in the NHL even more of a fiasco now than they were Friday morning?

Pretty much.

Tell it to the judge

The court stuff is a sideshow, an expression of complete frustration on the part of the players that there was ever anything they were going to be able to do through negotiations to reach a fair agreement.

On the part of the owners, the maneuvers Friday were just that, a mere exercise intended to stymie any sense on the part of the players that they have any hope for their futures other than finally, at long last, toeing the owners' line.

What the two sides are basically saying is that after four months of circling each other more than negotiating, after tactics on each side, after failing at mediation, after stomping off in a huff, they need to go to court to settle things.

But unless they continue negotiating toward a settlement, the court stuff probably will never save an abbreviated season. Not if it must begin by Jan. 20, or so, as it did in 1994-95, after a similarly miserable lockout.

The NBA and its players got a deal done within 11 days of the players moving to disclaim interest in their union, but only because they had substantive, even marathon, negotiations during the previous month.

Is the NHL there?

They seemed to make lots of progress three weeks ago, during their first substantive negotiations in weeks on Nov. 22. They, in fact, progressed last week, despite the breakdown in the talks and the vigorous theatrics Bettman and Fehr employed when things went awry.

But is that enough to now foster the sort of negotiating that can finally yield an agreement that will let hockey begin, while the lawyers gather before a judge and the NLRB?

We will know, within three weeks.

gkrupa@detnews.com