It looks like there will be a hockey season after all — shortened for sure, but perhaps back in business in a week or so.
The NHL and the players' association reached a tentative agreement early Sunday to end a nearly four-month-old lockout that threatened to wipe out what was left of an already abbreviated season.
A marathon negotiating session that lasted more than 16 hours, stretching from Saturday afternoon until just before dawn Sunday, produced a 10-year deal.
"We've got to dot a lot of Is and cross a lot of Ts," Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "There's still a lot of work to be done."
All schedule issues, including the length of the season and the look of the schedule, still need to be worked out. The NHL has models for 50- and 48-game seasons.
The original estimate was regular-season games could begin about eight days after a deal was reached. It is believed that all games will be played within the two respective conferences, but that also hasn't been decided.
The collective bargaining agreement still must be ratified by a majority of the league's 30 owners and the union's membership of approximately 740 players.
"Hopefully within a very few days the fans can get back to watching people who are skating, not the two of us," players' association executive director Donald Fehr said of himself and Bettman.
The players have been locked out since Sept. 16, the day after the previous agreement expired.
"Any process like this is difficult. It can be long," Fehr said.
Under the negotiated CBA, free-agent contracts will have a maximum length of seven years, but clubs can go to eight years to re-sign their own players. Each side can opt out of the deal after eight years.
The pension plan was "the centerpiece of the deal for the players," said Winnipeg Jets defenseman Ron Hainsey, who took part in negotiations throughout the process.
The actual language of the pension plan still has to be written, but Hainsey said there is nothing substantial that needs to be fixed.
"I want to thank Don Fehr," Bettman said. "We went through a tough period, but it's good to be at this point."
The players' share of hockey-related income, that reached a record $3.3 billion last season, will drop from 57 percent to a 50-50 split. The salary cap for the upcoming season will be $70.2 million and will then drop to $64.3 million in the 2013-14 season. All clubs will have to have a minimum payroll of $44 million.
The league had wanted next season's cap to drop to $60 million, but agreed to the same amount of last season's upper limit.
Inside individual player contracts, the salary can't vary more than 35 percent year to year, and the final year can't be more than 50 percent of the highest year.
A decision on whether NHL players will participate in the 2014 Olympics will be made outside the confines of the collective bargaining agreement. While it's expected that players will take part, the IOC and the International Ice Hockey Federation will have discussions with the league and the union before the matter is settled.
After the sides stayed mostly apart for two days, following late-night talks that turned sour, federal mediator Scot Beckenbaugh worked virtually around the clock to get everyone back to the bargaining table.
This time it worked — early on the 113th day of the work stoppage.
George Cohen, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service director, called the deal "the successful culmination of a long and difficult road."
"Of course, the agreement will pave the way for the professional players to return to the ice and for the owners to resume their business operations," he said in a statement. "But the good news extends beyond the parties directly involved; fans throughout North America will have the opportunity to return to a favorite pastime and thousands of working men and women and small businesses will no longer be deprived of their livelihoods."
Time was clearly a factor, with the sides facing a deadline of Thursday or Friday to reach a deal that would allow for a 48-game season to start a week later. Bettman had said the league could not allow a season of fewer than 48 games per team.
All games through Jan. 14, along with the All-Star game and the New Year's Day Winter Classic had already been canceled, claiming more than 50 percent of the original schedule.
Without an agreement, the NHL faced the embarrassment of losing two seasons due to a labor dispute, something that has never happened in another North American sports league. The 2004-05 season was wiped out while the sides negotiated hockey's first salary cap.
Photo Credit: AP