The NHL continues to play a dangerous lockout game. Commissioner Gary Bettman, who represents the owners, and union leader Donald Fehr, who represents the players, are banking on the hope that fans will come back.
They shouldn't be so sure.
Multiple times during the ongoing labor dispute, fans have been led to believe serious progress was being made. Every time, with the most recent example coming on Thursday night, the hope quickly changed to frustration after a major setback was announced.
Fehr says right now it doesn't appear labor impasse will be resolved soon— Pierre LeBrun (@Real_ESPNLeBrun) December 7, 2012
The process of losing fans is a gradual one. No certain event will lead to a mass exodus, but every day a small portion of the fanbase simply decides the league isn't worth the aggravation. Nights like Thursday just accelerate the process.
There will always be a solid base of diehards who stick with the league through thick and thin. But it's the casual sports fans, who were just starting to appreciate the sport again in recent years, who the NHL really needs to succeed.
It's a lesson you would think Bettman and Co. would have learned during the last work stoppage, which came less than a decade ago—a ridiculous fact in its own right. Unfortunately for fans, it looks like the sides are more divided than ever.
Charles Curtis of NJ.com summed up the current situation well after Thursday's talks broke down in a major way:
Here's another bottom line: Bettman said what the owners had offered is now "off the table." That includes "make whole" payments which would give players money on the contracts they signed before the lockout while the new CBA gave them less revenue.
Not only was the apparent progress made earlier in the week lost, but now the two sides are moving in the wrong direction.
They are putting yet another season in jeopardy just eight years after losing one. It's almost impossible to believe. Yet, sadly, diehard fans have come to expect it.
It's a packed sports weekend that features plenty of important NFL games, the Heisman Trophy ceremony, Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez continuing their terrific boxing rivalry, a bunch of NBA games and key part of the MLB offseason.
The NHL could have really used a major announcement before that to steal some headlines. Instead, casual sports fans are going to keep tabs on all of those events and many will come to realize they don't miss hockey that much after all.
Again, no single moment during this entire debacle has caused fans to jump ship. But there's no doubt the cumulative effect will be noticeable once the NHL gets back in action—whenever that may be.
For the fans that remain, the wait continues.