NHL, players reach tentative deal; ratification would end lockout

Hockey is back, and it took nearly four months and one long night to get the game back on the ice. With the season on the line, the NHL and the players' association agreed on a tentative pact to end a 113-day lockout. AP video. (Jan. 6)

At 6 a.m. Sunday, the glare of the lights in the Paris Room of the Sofitel Hotel in midtown Manhattan was reflected in the weary eyes of several NHL players who are far more comfortable with firing pucks than debating pensions.

It was hardly a post-party scene, but rather the winding down of a 16-hour negotiating session that apparently ended a 113-day lockout with the framework of a 10-year collective-bargaining agreement that will lead to an abbreviated NHL season beginning later this month.

Nearby were commissioner Gary Bettman and veteran union leader Donald Fehr, who became the faces of the labor war that angered fans and sponsors and regularly sliced this year's season into parts by canceling chunks of games, never to be reassembled.

"Hopefully, in a few days, people can start watching people who are skating and not the two of us," Fehr said.

"Absolutely," said Bettman, who serves at the behest of owners and presided over the third lockout of his 20-year career, one in which hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and salaries were lost.

"It was a battle," said Winnipeg Jets defenseman Ron Hainsey, who played a major role in the often rancorous talks, filled with distrust, that concluded only when the sides were faced with a deadline for a deal or the loss of the entire season, as was the case in 2004-05. "Gary said a month ago it was a tough negotiation, and that's what it was. Our focus now is to give the fans 48 or 50 games, whatever it is, the most exciting season we can. You want to be playing. You want to be done with this."

All that is left is for the contract language to be honed and approved and sent to the 740 players and the league's 30 Board of Governors for ratification, which is expected Tuesday. New intraconference schedules will be forged, limiting travel, and training camps will open, reportedly not before Saturday.

One of the unsung heroes of the talks was Scot L. Beckenbaugh, deputy director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, who helped resurrect a deal when talks staggered to a crawl last week. He shuttled back and forth to meet separately with each side, then kept them holed up together on an upper floor of the hotel from about 1 p.m. Saturday to seal a deal.

Although the final sticking points on player contracts and pensions were smoothed out by Bettman and Fehr in the wee hours, Beckenbaugh, who spent much of his career in Iowa and brokered settlements in the cereal, meat-packing and aluminum industries, set up the deciding goal in this game.

"I'd been told by family and friends, 'Lock yourselves in a room and don't come out,' " Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. "The mediator kind of did that. He kind of kept us going, and that was huge."

Soon the pucks will be dropped in a league that needs to rebound with some new economic parameters:

A 50-50 split of hockey-related revenue, like the NBA, between the owners and players, down from the players' former share of 57 percent.

Players' contracts limited in length and dollars, more revenue shared among financially strapped teams and increases in some individual safety and off-ice benefits for the players.

But it could be a tricky climb back to where the league was. The NHL is coming off seven years of record revenues, topped by $3.3 billion last season, in part fueled by NBC's broadcast and cable contracts and new business partners.

In the end, corporations continue to own teams and players still will earn high salaries, plus enjoy what they do.

"It was concessionary bargaining right from the beginning," Doan said. "As much as you didn't want to, we understand that the nature of professional sports has kind of changed with the last couple CBAs, starting with football and basketball. We knew we were in that position, and I think as a union, we got the best deal we could possibly get."

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