The 2012 NHL Lockout has been about economics. Unlike the 2005 Lockout, which heralded changes to the rules, the fan experience and introduced the first NHL salary cap, the current stoppage is purely about money and how best to divide it.

Though the NHL and NHLPA have held semi-regular meetings in the last few weeks, none of the talks have been aimed at answering that core economic question. However big the issue of division of revenues, it’s not a fundamental issue for which the sides will remain obstinate forever.

Think of it as Cold War brinkmanship. When money is all that’s at stake, both sides stand to lose it by holding out indefinitely (although players will feel the pinch first and most severely). Without a fundamental change at stake, there will come a point when the losses outweigh the potential gains of a season-ending lockout, and both sides will probably cross that threshold at some point in this theoretical season.

Tuesday, NHLPA boss Donald Fehr may have given everyone that fundamental push over the edge.

From the Toronto Star,

Donald Fehr expressed some hope that collective bargaining talks this week will help lead to some resolution.

But he also made it clear in an hour-long meeting with the Toronto Star’s editorial board that the longer the NHL lockout lasts, the less happy the players will be playing under a salary cap.

“If this goes on for an extended period of time, I don’t know what they (the players) are going to do. But I think it’s safe to say, they would be exploring all options,” said Fehr.

Talk of removing the NHL salary cap can be rhetoric or it can be genuine. In either case, continuing to bring it into the conversation is going to solidify owners at a time when reports suggest they aren’t all in this together.

And if Fehr’s talk manages to galvanize 30 groups or individuals who have thus far displayed 30 different cases of coincidental but common selfishness, consider the cap option his Alamo moment and kiss this season (and maybe more) goodbye.

What on Earth could Fehr possibly hope to gain by tabling the NHL salary cap? The players weren’t necessarily hurt when the first iteration of the cap saw salaries increase to their highest-ever levels. They weren’t losing out when the cap ceiling nearly doubled from $39 million in 2005-06 to $64 million in 2011-12. They certainly weren’t losing out when owners knowingly drove up their own costs by handing out cap-circumventing deals that in some instances exceeded more than $100 million.

If this is a scare tactic, everyone involved should be terrified.

The lockout has thus far yielded harmless, coincidental posturing that hasn’t put a stop to negotiations. Bringing the salary cap (which is the core economic issue over which one entire season has already been lost) back into the equation is going to send the league into the trenches for good.

Talks haven’t yielded progress yet, but they haven’t done great harm, either. If Fehr is serious about bringing the cap into question, consider it his “duck season” moment.

Because if he really is serious, the NHL’s second forfeited season will be his legacy and his alone.

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