NEW YORK — After four months of rancor, threats and mistrust, the NHL commissioner and the head of the players union stood side by side Sunday morning for the first time since the lockout began, a picture of amity and cooperation.
‘’Don Fehr and I are here to tell you that we have reached an agreement on a framework for a new collective bargaining agreement,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “We still have more work to do, but it’s good to be at this point.”
Bettman was speaking at 5:30 a.m. Sunday, shortly after a 16-hour bargaining session that brought an end to the often bitter NHL lockout in its 113th day.
‘’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, the union’s executive director.
The NHL board of governors was expected to meet in New York by Tuesday to vote on the deal ahead of a possible start of training camps Wednesday. Players are also expected to ratify the agreement.
Under the quickest timetable, a regular season of 48 to 50 games could begin by Jan. 15. But ratifications, paperwork and the players’desire to have one exhibition game could push that back a few days.
In interviews, union officials and players provided some details of the tentative settlement.
The agreement will be for 10 years, and either side can opt out after eight. The salary cap for the 2013-14 season would drop from $70.2 million in 2012-13 to $64.3 million. Each team will be allowed two contract buyouts to get under the lowered cap.
Individual player contracts will be limited to seven years, or eight if a club is re-signing a player, the first time that NHL contract lengths have been limited.
To prevent contracts that try to circumvent the salary cap, no player’s salary can change by more than 35 percent from one year to the next, and the highest-paid year of the contract must be within 50 percent of the lowest-paid year.
When the lockout began on Sept. 15, Bettman said it was so that NHL owners could get the same kind of deal the NFL and NBA owners were able to get after recent lockouts. Those leagues, and now the NHL, have reduced their players’ share of revenues from 57 percent, to about 50 percent.
Scot L. Beckenbaugh, deputy director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, emerged as a crucial player in ending the lockout.
Saturday’s negotiations went on as players voted to allow Fehr to dissolve the union ifthe talks stalled. Exercising that option probably would have ended the bargaining and pushed the proceedings into court.
But hopes of a settlement rose as negotiations went into the early hours of Sunday morning.
Beckenbaugh spent 12 hours Friday shuttling between the NHL office in Midtown Manhattan and the union’s hotel two blocks away. Finally he determined that it would be worthwhile to bring the sides together for a bargaining session, which began at 1:15 p.m. Saturday at the union’s hotel and turned out to be by far the longest since the lockout began on Sept. 15.
Beckenbaugh, 59, worked more than 30 hours on Friday, Saturday and into the wee hours Sunday to bring the sides back together and keep them focused on the issues.
When the session began Saturday afternoon in the ballroom of the Sofitel hotel, there was a sense that the talks could just as easily blow up as lead to a settlement. As the talks were going on, the union voted overwhelmingly to give Fehr authorization to walk away from the table, dissolve the union and send everything to the courts. Such was the level of distrust between the players and the league.
Instead Bettman and Fehr came to a deal. Tired but pleased, they faced reporters Sunday morning, announced the settlement and walked away.
Fehr then turned to Bettman, patted him on the shoulder and said, “That was painless.”
Hardly. The league was a growing $3.3 billion business in 2011-12, but the lockout cost almost half a season, alienated fans and sponsors and, according to Bettman’s own estimate, cost $18-$20 million a day in lost revenue.
However relieved both sides were to reach an agreement, it came at a cost.
‘’The mood was nervous, but it’s been nervous for a while,” said Ron Hainsey of the Winnipeg Jets, one of nine players present for the marathon negotiations. “You want to be playing, you want to be done with this. I don’t know if it was any more or less, but I think you could tell we were making progress.”
The players made most of the concessions under the new agreement. When Bettman called the lockout in September, he said it was so that NHL owners could get the same kind of deal the NFL and NBA owners were able to get.
‘’It was concessionary bargaining right from the beginning,” Shane Doan of the Phoenix Coyotes said. “We understood that, as much as we didn’t want that. We understand that the nature of professional sports has kind of changed in the last couple CBA’s in football, basketball and obviously hockey. That’s the way it’s been going for the last 10 years.”
Hainsey, the players’ chief negotiator, said that the new pension plan was the “centerpiece” of the agreement. It will be financed by the players, and guaranteed against shortfalls by the owners, although lawyers from both sides must still work out the mechanisms.
Hainsey said the pension “was an issue for the players, and this deal would not get done without it, something they can rally around and be proud of.”
He said the other gains for the players were really about preserving some of what they had in the last agreement, like arbitration rights and free agency.
And, as Doan said, the chance to play hockey again.
‘’We all play the game because our parents or our grandparents or somebody really had a love of the game, and you still have that love of the game in you,” Doan said. “You play minor hockey and leave home at an early age, as we’ve all done to get to the spot we’re at, because we love the game so much.
But after months of contentious labor talks, Doan said he saw the other side of the game.
‘’Once you get to the NHL, you start to see it’s a huge business,” he said. “There are businesspeople that are going to make business decisions. And you’re part of that.”
The lockout was the third since Bettman became commissioner in 1993. The three lockouts together have led to the cancellation of about 2,400 regular-season games, about 10 percent of the games scheduled. That percentage is more than three times as high as any other major league in the same 20-year period.
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