A deadline nears. Two leaders, both believing they have a mandate from their key constituencies, square off publicly while their top aides privately try to end an impasse. As always, those out of the negotiation limelight stand to lose the most.
The fiscal cliff? Well, sure. But it could also describe an even more self-inflicted, absurd crisis: The National Hockey League lockout.
Responding to the intractable labor negotiations, this week the league canceled its games through Dec. 30, representing 43 percent of the season. Not surprisingly, the New Year's Day Winter Classic and the All-Star Game are also off.
An agreement probably is needed within a week or so in order to cobble together a truncated season that would have any semblance of legitimacy before the Stanley Cup playoffs. Teams usually play 82 regular-season games. A shortened season could have 40-something games, which would be regarded as a farce by many fans. But more would require squeezing too many games in a week, which would be logistically difficult and might increase injuries.
Still, any hockey played would be good for the league's fans -- or what remains of them. And it would be particularly welcome for those whose livelihoods depend, at least in part, on NHL hockey, like those profiled by Michael Russo in the Star Tribune's "Faces of the lockout" feature that was published Dec. 9.
On Monday, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman added emphasis to the wide impact the narrow-minded player and league leaders are having on St. Paul and other NHL cities. Coleman told an editorial writer that the lockout is having a big impact on multiple levels: Significant cuts in workforce and reduced hours and income for those who have kept their jobs. The mayor even cited "the poor baby sitters" who don't get hired because mom and dad don't go to games.
Speaking of both owners and players, Coleman added that, "I don't think they have a clue. I don't think they understand real-world impacts of their decisions. Communities build up around arenas like the 'X' [Xcel Energy Center], because they are dependent on 42 nights-plus of hockey a year. That's the difference between making and breaking a year. ... It's a collective ignorance; collectively they are missing how much people are hurting out there."
Add Wild employees to those hurting. Starting this week most nonunion employees had their workweeks cut to 32 hours. Their pay cut will be reflected in their Dec. 28 checks, and soon after in the broader economy.
The two sides are arguing over several issues. But mostly it comes down to (what else?) money. Yet it's likely that fan disgust -- or worse, apathy -- triggered by the lockout will mean that the revenue being fought over will be significantly lower for the foreseeable future.
But it's not yet time to throw in the towel. Rather, it's time for both sides to rally and to heed the words of President Obama, who spoke on Thursday with WCCO-TV's Frank Vascellaro. Among his comments was this reminder: "My message to owners and to players is, you guys make a lot of money and you make a lot of money on the backs of fans, so do right by your fans."
If, or when, they do, it's also well past time to bench those most responsible: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who has overseen a hat trick of labor crises, and Donald Fehr, executive director of the Players' Association, who is close to hurting hockey as badly as he set back baseball when he led the players into a disastrous strike that canceled the 1994 World Series.
Both have fundamentally failed a great sport, its fans, and those whose livelihoods depend on it.