After months of being locked in a labour stalemate, the National Hockey League and its players are finally ready to get back to work.
Early on Sunday morning — day 113 of the lockout — NHL commissioner Gary Bettman confirmed from New York the two sides had reached a tentative agreement on the framework of a new collective bargaining agreement that will finally spark the beginning of the 2012-13 NHL season.
Details of the new CBA were not immediately available, and Bettman cautioned they still needed to be ironed out fully.
"We have reached an agreement on the framework of a new collective bargaining agreement, the details of which need to be put to paper," Bettman told a news conference. "We've got to dot a lot of i's and cross a lot of t's. There's still a lot of work to be done but the basic framework of the deal has been agreed upon."
There was no official word on when training camps could begin or when the regular season was slated to kick off, but some reports suggest the camps could commence on Wednesday at the earliest, and Saturday at the latest. Reports also suggest the season could start Jan. 15 at the earliest and Jan. 19 at the latest. It has also been reported the Stanley Cup playoffs would end in late June.
However, according to Hockey Night in Canada's Elliotte Friedman the sides settled on a seven-year maximum term for free agents (eight if the team is re-signing its own free agent). Friedman also reported the deal is for 10 years with an opt-out after eight, and that the NHL came up from its original salary cap demands, from $60 million US to $63.4 million. The floor next season will reportedly be $44 million.
On variance, according to Friedman, they agreed that the lowest-paid season of any multi-year deal can be no lower than 50 per cent of the highest season. The sides both agreed to split up hockey-related revenue 50/50 for the duration of the 10 years.
The Canadian Press also reported each team can use up to two compliance buyouts prior to the 2013-14 season, which will count against the players' share of hockey-related revenue.
Those hoping to see their favourite NHL players make the trip to the 2014 Sochi Olympics to compete will have to wait a while to find out. Friedman tweeted that their participation will be negotiated separately, while he says re-alignment also remains unsettled.
The majority of both the NHL's 30-member Board of Governors and NHL players still need to ratify the agreement.
"Hopefully within a very few days the fans can get back to watching people who are skating, not the two of us," said Donald Fehr, executive director of the NHL Players' Association.
An emotional ride for fans and those involved in the game alike was put to an end when the deal was put in place.
One of the more prominent players throughout the negotiations, Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, was already gearing up to get back on the ice.
"I'm really happy a deal has been reached," Crosby told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "It's exciting to know we will be back playing hockey."
The news came after a marathon 16-hour negotiation session with U.S. federal mediator Scot Beckenbaugh in New York. Beckenbaugh, who was also involved in the 2004-05 lockout, was able to bring the two sides together for a marathon collective bargaining session Saturday after shuffling back and forth between the groups separately on Friday.
They were the first face-to-face talks since negotiations broke down on Thursday.
A series of proposals and counterproposals were exchanged between the two sides, beginning with a comprehensive 288-page document submitted by the NHL Dec. 27.
Bettman has maintained the deadline to preserve a 48-game schedule and have a new CBA signed was Jan. 11, but the hope is more can be squeezed in now that the deal was reached beforehand.
Players were losing $30,000 US on average per cancelled game with owners taking an even bigger hit to their wallets.
Among the major roadblocks to getting a deal done sooner were differences on issues like next year’s salary cap, pension plans, salary variance and contract limits.
Deadline comes and goes
The NHLPA’s trump card was voting on its “disclaimer of interest,” which would give the union the authority to dissolve. It would also allow for anti-trust lawsuits and throw the labour process even more into a state of uncertainty.
However, a self-imposed deadline to disclaim came and went on Wednesday night with the league and its players meeting into the early hours of Thursday morning.
They had a second vote to re-authorize the disclaimer, which was scheduled to end Saturday night at 6 p.m. ET, but didn't need to exercise it.
The two sides encountered several major bumps in the road along the way to finally resolving their labour dispute and avoiding the second loss of a full season in the last decade (2004-05).
In early December, several owners — including Pittsburgh’s Ron Burkle, Toronto’s Larry Tanenbaum, Tampa Bay’s Jeff Vinik and Winnipeg’s Mark Chipman — joined the labour negotiations, minus Bettman and Fehr.
Those talks fuelled some optimism, and even led NHLPA right-hand man Steve Fehr and NHL deputy director Bill Daly to stand beside each other during a press conference for the first time since the league locked out its players Sept. 15.
Don Fehr even claimed during a press conference the sides were “clearly very close” on core economic issues after the PA tabled an offer to the league.
Hope soon gave way to disappointment, though, as in the middle of the presser, a voicemail left on Steve Fehr’s phone revealed the league was flat-out rejecting the latest proposal. Bettman, in turn, was infuriated that Fehr would characterize the talks as being closer than they were.
It was just one example of what has been a roller coaster ride, and at times a mind-numbingly frustrating process.
The NHL is the only major North American sports league to cancel a full season because of a labour dispute.
All games through Jan. 14 — including the NHL All-Star Game and Winter Classic — were wiped out, adding up to more than 50 per cent of the original schedule.