When NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said "the hill we will die on" during a news conference Dec. 6, he angrily summed up where the NHL...

When NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said “the hill we will die on” during a news conference Dec. 6, he angrily summed up where the NHL went in a ruinous 2012.

“Term limits on player contracts, which is the hill we will die on,” Daly said, explaining why the league had rejected the players’ latest proposal.

It was an utterance so evocative of gallant sacrifice and heroic last stands, yet made in connection with a mere business issue.

But that is how commissioner Gary Bettman, Daly and the NHL owners seem to view this lockout: as a kind of apocalyptic battle in which the players union must be defeated, even if the world must be brought down to do so.

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Lockouts are now a habit with the NHL, and this one will continue into 2013, even though the players have made most of the concessions and Bettman is excoriated by figures as diverse as Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and the president of the Kontinental Hockey League, Alexander Medvedev.

Even if a settlement is reached in the weeks to come, the damage has been done: Many avid fans have lost interest, and the NHL has slid back into the near irrelevance in the American sports landscape that it only recently escaped after so many years of struggle.

Daly was talking about contract lengths when he used the ominous phrase, but in the larger sense, he was right. This lockout may indeed be the hill the NHL will die on.