NEW YORK, N.Y. - An agonizingly long series of negotiations needed one final push. Spurred on by a tireless mediator, the NHL and the NHL Players' Association worked through the night to finally set aside their differences and return hockey to the place it belongs.
On the ice.
It almost seemed too good to be true when word started to leak out early Sunday morning that a marathon 16-hour negotiating session had produced a tentative deal to end the 113-day lockout. But then Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr appeared together to share the news.
"Hopefully, within a very few days the fans can get back to watching people who are skating — not the two of us," said Fehr, the NHLPA's executive director, looking as exhausted as everyone else in the bargaining room.
There is still plenty to do in a short period of time. In fact, the sides continued hammering out the final details of the players' new defined benefit pension plan even after the tentative deal was reached around 4:45 a.m. in a second-floor conference room at a Manhattan hotel.
Next on the agenda will be committing every legal point to paper in an agreeable manner and conducting ratification votes. Both sides are in need of majority support among their memberships, and the still-to-be-determined timing of that process will determine if the shortened schedule ends up being 48 games or 50 games.
"We have reached an agreement on the framework of a new collective bargaining agreement, the details of which need to be put to paper," said Bettman, the longtime NHL commissioner who presided over his third lockout. "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."
At least some of the credit for that goes to Scot L. Beckenbaugh, a federal mediator who remained undeterred even though his previous experience with the two sides came during the previous lockout, just days before the 2004-05 season was cancelled.
It was Beckenbaugh who helped keep talks on track over the last week and set the table for the final breakthrough. According to sources, it was during a lengthy round of shuttle mediation on Friday where he was able to start pushing the sides towards the framework that ultimately shaped the deal.
But there was still a lot of work to be done when talks resumed around 1 p.m. on Saturday.
A key issue for players was the pension plan, which was eventually settled when the sides came to an understanding on how they would account for the future financial liability. That might be the biggest win for the players in a deal where they are seeing their share in revenue reduced to 50 per cent from a system where they received 57 per cent.
"(The pension) was an issue for the players that this deal would not get done without," said Winnipeg Jets defenceman Ron Hainsey, a key member of the negotiating committee. "I don't think there's any doubt that the pension is the centrepiece of this deal for the players."
The NHLPA also held firm on a 2013-14 salary cap of US$64.3 million — the same level where it sat last year — and the league was willing to oblige since the players agreed to parameters that should limit front-loaded, back-diving contracts. A term limit of seven years was agreed to for free agents (teams can sign their own players for up to eight years), while a 35 per cent yearly variance in salary was put in place.
Under the new CBA, no contract can include more than a 50 per cent difference in pay between any two seasons.
Perhaps most importantly for everyone who cares about the league — whether they're fans, sponsors, players or owners — is that the agreement will run over 10 years through 2021-22, with an opt-out option after eight seasons.
So there will be labour peace for several years.
"Everyone is obviously relieved that it's over and done with, for all intents and purposes, and we're able to kind of move on to what we kind of enjoy doing a lot more than this," said Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan, another player involved in talks.
The participation of NHLers in future Olympics will be decided outside of the CBA, according to a source.
Prior to reaching the tentative agreement on Sunday morning, the NHL was on the verge of cancelling a second season due to a work stoppage. The two sides were working against the clock after Bettman set a deadline of Jan. 11 to get a deal done to save a shortened season, which is expected to start between Jan. 15 and Jan. 19.
The lockout will cost the league between 480 and 510 regular-season games, depending on whether there is a 48- or 50-game season, but the most important number probably won't be revealed for at least 18 months. The NHL was coming off seven years of record revenues when the last CBA expired, hitting a high-water mark of $3.3 billion last season, and it remains to be seen how quickly fans and sponsors will return when the puck is dropped again.
Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, the face of the sport, acknowledged as much a few hours after being awoken by a phone call from teammate Craig Adams with news of the agreement.
"Hopefully everyone comes back," Crosby told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "I understand people are frustrated. It's more than understandable for people to be frustrated, I don't blame them at all. I just hope everyone is excited by the news and by the idea of hockey being back. I'm sure there are a lot of happy people out there, but I understand there are those who are frustrated and discouraged.
"I understand it. I get that. I just hope they can find it in themselves to come back and support us. Their support means an awful lot to us."
Many hoped the league's lockout cycle would be broken when the entire 2004-'05 season was cancelled to get a salary cap. But it turned out the shared history of the parties, which also includes a strike in 1992 and a lockout in 1994-'95, was too much to overcome.
"It was concessionary bargaining right from the beginning," said Doan.
The NHLPA membership hired Fehr out of retirement about 21 months before the CBA expired with the express purpose of getting the players a fair shake in these negotiations. And the union's executive director made it clear that his players were still stinging after being locked out for an entire season just eight years earlier.
"Obviously, what happened in the last round of negotiations is the starting point for this round of bargaining," Fehr told The Canadian Press just before formal talks began with the league at the end of June.
Negotiations got off to a rocky start.
The first offer tabled by the NHL on July 13 was intended to be a wish list for the sides to start from, but instead seemed to anger and galvanize the union membership. In addition to proposing that the players' share in revenue drop from 57 per cent to 43 per cent, the league suggested a range of changes to contract rules, including term limits of five years and an extended entry-level system.
It would be another month before the NHLPA delivered a counter-offer.
By then, it was already clear the sides were heading for another lockout once the CBA expired and when the moment of truth arrived on Sept. 15, they were nowhere near the bargaining table. Soon most of the news about the league was dominated by cancellation announcements — first a portion of the pre-season, then all of the exhibition schedule and eventually the first two weeks of the regular season.
The league eventually responded with an unexpected beefed-up proposal on Oct. 16 that offered an enticing carrot to players: The chance to save an 82-game season. It included a 50-50 split of revenues and required the deal to be signed within nine days.
"If we didn't do it now, if we didn't put an offer on the table that we thought was fair and could get us playing hockey ... then it probably wasn't going to happen for a while," Bettman said at the time. "It's done in the spirit of getting a full season in."
Fehr and the players didn't blink. They returned 48 hours later with three proposals and an impressive roster of attendees, including Crosby and Jonathan Toews, and saw all three shot down by Bettman in a matter of minutes.
More cancellation announcements followed, including the Jan. 1 Winter Classic outdoor game between the Red Wings and Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium. The losses were mounting. Bettman told reporters that each day came at a cost of almost $20 million per day for the league.
The first true surge of optimism arrived during the first week of December, when Crosby and four owners, including Pittsburgh's Ron Burkle, joined the process and brought a more conciliatory tone. The first day of talks stretched past midnight and ended with NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr calling it the "best day" of talks.
That was immediately followed by another lengthy session the following afternoon where proposals were exchanged and tempers were heated.
On the third day, it went off the rails.
Donald Fehr presented a new proposal, told reporters the sides were so close they were virtually on top of each other and then quickly returned to announce the league was pulling its latest offer from the table. Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly followed with an emotional 30-minute press conference, where the commissioner was asked about the possibility of losing a second season on his watch.
"Am I unhappy about the prospect? You bet I am," said Bettman. "It's absolutely something that torments me."
The frustration was shared by everyone involved. Crosby returned to a practice rink in suburban Pittsburgh, where he spent the majority of his time staying sharp during the lockout, and told reporters he wouldn't re-enter negotiations.
"This stuff is getting ridiculous, (losing) all these games," said Crosby. "I'm here to play hockey, I'm not here to negotiate. I support the players. I witnessed how hard guys worked and how bad they want this to work.
"But to see this happen, it's terrible. It makes everyone look bad."
The window to make a deal finally opened Dec. 27 in the form of a 288-page proposal emailed from Bettman to Fehr. In it, the league softened demands on contract lengths and salary variance, and reintroduced $300 million in deferred payments to help ease the transition to a system where revenues are split 50-50.
That sparked a resumption of negotiations on New Year's Eve — just steps from Times Square, where thousands of revellers gathered — and kicked off the push to the finish. Several proposals were exchanged as the sides moved closer together and when talks were in danger of getting off track, Beckenbaugh stepped in to ensure they didn't.
He spent almost 13 hours shuttling between independent meetings with the two sides on Friday and got them back together at the bargaining table on Saturday afternoon. The parties refused to leave until a deal to save the season was done.
Now it's time to move forward.
"It was a battle," said Hainsey. "Gary said a month ago it was a tough negotiation and that's what it was. The players obviously would rather not have been here but our focus now is to give the fans whatever it is — 48 games, 50 games — the most exciting season we can."
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