So, this is what genuine negotiating looks like.

After months of treating us to what could be called a dog and pony show the owners and players finally seem eager to get down to business. Now, the only question is whether this renewed sense of urgency is a case of too little, too late.

The optimism began last week when the NHL's owners tabled their best offer of the lockout. Rather than crafting a hasty response to the league's offer, Donald Fehr and the NHLPA took the entire weekend going over the 288-page proposal and eventually drew up a response.

The two sides had another long day of meetings on New Year's Day and although details from the recent talks have been scarce there have been reports that the owners and players are making progress on key topics like revenue sharing and CBA length. Talks are expected to continue on Wednesday and one can only hope that things keep heading in the right direction until there's an agreement.

Of course, it's no surprise that this sudden urge to sit down face-to-face and actually hear what the other side is saying comes a little over a week before the NHL's Jan. 11 deadline to save the season. Even if the sides secretly knew any attempts at saving the season were hopeless they'd still be meeting like crazy just to keep up appearances.

The problem with waiting so long to begin serious negotiations is that at this late hour even the slightest snag could delay talks long enough to end hopes that there will be a season. After all, since the NHL's collective bargaining agreement ended on Sept. 15, the owners and players have met sparingly and when they did get together it seemed things would break down almost as soon as they began.

With the prospect of losing another season so soon after the canceled 2004-05 campaign always looming over this CBA battle, it always seemed more likely a solution would be reached before it was too late. Yet, even if this round of negotiations ends the lockout and leads to a shortened season, the damage has already been done and there should be no reason to rejoice.

The two sides agreeing on a new CBA before the deadline is obviously a preferable outcome to having no season at all, but hockey fans should still be angry that things ever got this far. Even if a deal spares the season in the Eleventh Hour, we should all be incensed that honest negotiations didn't even begin until about 10:30 on that proverbial clock.

From the start, this squabble has been avoidable because both sides employ the same strategy of drawing this debate out in order to get the other side to cave. That tactic will probably work for either the owners or players, but the fans were always going to be the losers in this battle. The fact that the best outcome they could hope for is a truncated season is just sad and it highlights how cynical this labor dispute has been.

With little in the way of actual details to work off of, we're left with studying the words and body language of Fehr and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to give us insight as to whether a deal can be made in order to save the season. It's probably a good sign Fehr and Bettman have been vague in their recent public comments but anything short of those two men shaking hands on an actual agreement is not good enough.

"The fact that we're involved in a continuous process is something that I'm glad to see," said Bettman, "but we're clearly not done yet."

Clearly. Because even if the last week of talks are indeed in earnest there is still too good of a chance that these negotiations will break down again. As we learned in December when the last notable CBA talks took place, progress made in negotiations is not really worth anything until an agreement is reached on all topics.

Just because the sides may be in a giving mood now doesn't mean they'll pass up an opportunity to grab something for themselves.

Because that's when, like a game of Jenga, it could all come crumbling down.