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Now the puck can drop

NHL, players score a contract in long session to save season

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Staring at an impending deadline for cancelling the season, the National Hockey League and its players made peace in the wee hours of Sunday morning.

The labour impasse was into its 113th day before league commissioner Gary Bettman and National Hockey League Players' Association executive director Donald Fehr shook hands on a deal in a hotel in downtown New York.

The agreement will start the 30-team league's season -- including at Winnipeg's MTS Centre, home of the revived Jets -- by next Saturday at the latest, though details on opening of training camps and a regular-season schedule of 48 or 50 games were not nailed down as of late Sunday night.

"It's like a late Christmas present," Winnipeg Jets winger Evander Kane told the Free Press Sunday. "I'm just so excited to get back playing in the NHL."

NHL owners and players still must ratify the agreement, completed after a marathon 16-hour bargaining session that started at midday Saturday. Approval is expected by mid-week at the latest and should pave the way for the teams to begin mitigating the damage of a fourth labour disruption since 1992.

Last season, when the Jets returned to the NHL, the league and its players split a record $3.3 billion in hockey revenue. It was divided 57-43 in the players' favour.

Now the pie will be split 50-50 under the new tentative 10-year collective bargaining agreement, which either side can reopen after eight years. The new deal provides up to $300 million in payments to help players with existing contracts transition into the new arrangement.

The players gained a markedly better defined-benefit pension plan, said to be a huge factor in easing the way to a final pact, and will play under a pro-rated team salary cap of $70.2 million this season. The players pushed for and got an improved revenue-sharing package to help weaker teams -- as much as $200 million per season.

In return, the league gets to reset team salary caps at $64.3 million for 2013-14, the same as it was in 2011-12, and lower the spending floor to $44 million for both seasons. Last season's floor was $48.3 million per team.

The NHL reportedly also won a maximum seven-year limit on player contracts (previously there was no limit) and an eight-year contract limit for teams signing their own free agents. Also won was a restriction on how much salaries can vary year to year. This prevents long-term, front-loaded contracts teams and players used to circumvent the salary cap.

After their long session Saturday and into Sunday, Bettman and Fehr met together with reporters to announce the outcome.

"Don Fehr and I are here to tell you that 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 said.

"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."

Fehr nodded through much of Bettman's statement, then added: "Any process like this in the system we have can be difficult. It can be long. I've said repeatedly throughout this process, somebody would say, 'What do you see ahead?' and the answer is you get up tomorrow and try to find a way to do it and you keep doing that until you find a way to succeed.

"Hopefully, we're at a place where all those things will proceed fairly rapidly and with some dispatch, and we'll get back to what we used to call business as usual just as fast as we can.

"And hopefully within just a few days, the fans can get back to watching people who are skating, and not the two of us."

The end-game was made possible by U.S. federal mediator Scot Beckenbaugh, who met with both sides separately Thursday and Friday.

He is said to have kept a crumbling situation together on Friday, then was able to discover enough middle ground to bring the sides together Saturday for the final push.

The owners and players can now devote their efforts to making amends to their fans and the many people who have relied on NHL games for customers and income.

"We understand a lot of people were hurt, especially people who work in arenas and are affected by the jobs in restaurants and such downtown," Jets captain Andrew Ladd told the Free Press. "We'll take our side of the blame for that and try to go forward and make it up to people.

"There's not much we can do at this point but that... There's no point looking back. We'll move on and get this game where everyone knows it can be."

 

-- With files from Ed Tait and The Canadian Press

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 7, 2013 A3

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