The National Hockey League is back in business.
The league and the NHL Players’ Association reached a tentative deal on a new collective bargaining agreement in the wee hours Sunday morning and, with that, the wheels were quickly set in motion to begin the season, perhaps as early as Jan. 15 with a 50-game schedule; Jan. 19 if it’s a 48-game campaign.
"We have reached an agreement on the framework of a new collective bargaining agreement," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman early Sunday morning in New York.
"I want to thank (NHLPA executive director) Don Fehr. We still have more work to do, but it's good to be at this point."
Added Winnipeg Jets defenceman Ron Hainsey, a key member of the NHLPA, who spoke to reporters in New York: "It was a battle. Gary said a month ago it was a tough negotiation. That’s what it was. 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. The mood had been nervous for a while.
"You want to be playing. You want to be done with this.
That was a common refrain back in Winnipeg, where players who have been skating and working out regularly at the Iceplex are just ecstatic to be back working with an end-goal now in sight.
"I got the news this morning," said Jets centre Jim Slater.
"Today was a day to sleep in because we had been going pretty hard with some early mornings all week. When I woke up there were a lot of text messages on my phone and so I kind of knew something was up.
"Over the course of the last couple of days I kind of felt something would get done because there was a lot of movement. I didn’t know it would be last night, but thankfully it was."
The NHL has not released a schedule yet – teams likely won’t speak publicly until the deal is formally ratified by the 30 owners and approximately 740 players – but it’s possible, under a 48-game scenario, that the Jets would open at home on Jan. 19 against the New Jersey Devils.
Kicking off the season here would be perfect for Winnipegger Travis Zajac of the Devils, who missed out playing at MTS Centre last year because of injury.
In any case, like most involved with the NHL, he’s just ecstatic to be back at work.
"I’m pretty excited," said Zajac, who was leaving for New Jersey Sunday afternoon, during a quick pit stop at the Iceplex Sunday morning. "It’s a great day to finally be able to play hockey again and a sport we love.
"I felt like this was a time, that it was now or never. There was some optimism here on Thursday, hearing that things were progressing. It took an all-nighter to get it done and I’m glad they did.
"I haven’t heard every detail (of the new CBA), just what’s been in the media. But at this point it doesn’t really matter. I think both sides were just happy to get something done and be back playing."
Among the key elements reportedly in the new CBA:
- -It is 10 years in length with an opt-out clause after eight years;
- -The league and players will split hockey-related revenue 50-50 in all 10 years of the agreement, down from a 57-43 split that had favoured the players;
- -The salary cap this year will remain at $70.2 million (pro-rated), but drop to $64.3 next year with a $44 million floor;
- -Each team will be allowed two amnesty contract buyouts, beginning next season, to dump juicy contracts they deem not worthwhile;
- -The salary variance on contract will not vary more than 35 per cent from year to year or 50 per cent from the highest year;
- -The contract term length for free agents will be seven years; eight if a team is signing its own player;
- -The draft lottery will also change, with all 14 teams that did not qualify for the playoffs now having a shot at the first pick in a weighed system.
It’s expected the Jets would recall centre Mark Scheifele, their first-round pick in 2011, from the Barrie Colts to participate in their training camp when it opens. Scheifele was returning from Europe Sunday ( although there were flight issues) after playing for Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships in Ufa, Russia.
Other Jets are also expected to quickly be making their way back to Winnipeg. Nik Antropov and Alex Ponikarovsky were playing in the KHL while Blake Wheeler and Antti Miettinen playing in Germany and Finland. Mark Stuart, who was with the Florida Everblades of the ECHL, was also scrambling to get back to what will be a shortened season.
"You’ve got to get off to a good start, that’s the most-important thing," Stuart told TSN 1290. "A lot of the guys are in different situations. Some of them haven’t played, some played a lot of games, some played a few. It’s just a matter of getting the guys back together, getting on the same page and getting off to a good start and staying healthy and taking care of your body. It really is going to be a grind."