Top Shelf: CBA gridlock dampens spirits

The last meeting between the owners and players came to an unceremonious end on Sunday and the sound bites that followed could've easily been replaced with the din of tires screeching to a halt.

That's because after a week of secret meetings and what appeared to be actual progress the owners and players once again are back to ignoring each other.

One of the most optimistic periods of the NHL lockout came to an end Sunday after a 90-minute meeting between representatives for the league and players. The length of the session was jarring since the sides had recently met for several marathon sessions in the week prior to Sunday's meltdown.

Maybe this is all part of the process and the current freeze on negotiations is a natural result after a long week of meetings, but each day of silence casts doubt on any effort to spin things positively.

In fact, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly summed up the current climate best in an email to the Canadian Press on Thursday, saying he's "more discouraged now than I have been at any point in the process."

Making matters worse, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has suggested a two-week moratorium on negotiations. After accomplishing next-to-nothing in this labor dispute after months of talking, somehow I don't think taking two weeks off from negotiating at this late stage is a good sign.

If a forced vacation from the task at hand is needed to get things on track, even the most optimistic of hockey fans would have to admit that the situation is pretty bleak.

So, how did things break down this quickly?

The first cracks in the foundation came Nov. 7 when according to reports the owner's delegation nearly stormed out of a meeting before being convinced otherwise. At the time, it was sold as positive news because despite being angered by what they were hearing from the players, the owners were able to hang in and hear the other side's point of view.

But, two days later things broke down even further and Sunday's abbreviated meeting has led to our current week of silence. Things have gotten so bad that the two sides aren't even talking by phone or email.

Although the sides have never really agreed on the core economics the latest snag is related to contract issues. That debate involves topics like the NHL's desire to put a cap on the amount of years that can be offered to a free agent or increasing the age at which players become free agents.

Daly said recently that the NHLPA gave the league its ideas on 17 contract issues and "we have a deal, or made progress on 14 of them." As usual, no matter how many issues these sides agree on the topics that divide them are the ones that influence negotiations the most.

NHLPA boss Donald Fehr was less optimistic than Daly regarding the NHL's stance on contract issues, saying Sunday that he doesn't see "a path to an agreement here."

Making matters worse, the halt in negotiations comes at a crucial point in the calendar. According to Chris Botta of Sports Business Journal, the sides have until the middle of next week to agree on a new CBA before the next wave of cancellations hit. The league already has scrapped its entire November schedule and the next step will be to eliminate regular-season games through Dec. 15.

Simply put, if the two sides can't find a way to communicate their differences to each other soon then half of the December schedule is as good as gone.

It's hard to believe we're heading into the third month since the lockout officially began on Sept. 15 and so little movement on the important issues has been made.

Unfortunately, the best reason left to believe the entire season won't be canceled is that the owners and players aren't dumb enough to let another season slip away like they did in 2004-05.

If they take two weeks off from negotiating with the entire season hanging in the balance maybe it's time to admit they are that dumb,