NEW YORK, N.Y. – After six long months of negotiations, it took one extremely long night to get the NHL out of the boardroom and back on the ice.
A tentative deal to end the 113-day NHL lockout was reached Sunday morning at the end of a marathon 16-hour negotiating session.
“We have reached an agreement on the framework of a new collective bargaining agreement, the details of which need to be put to paper,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told a news conference. “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.”
Before the new CBA officially comes into effect, it must be ratified by a majority of both 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,” said Donald Fehr, executive director of the NHL Players’ Association.
Neither side has announced any details of the deal – which came together with the help of U.S. federal mediator Scot Beckenbaugh -but according to a source, it’s a 10-year agreement with an opt-out option after eight years.
It also includes defined benefit pensions for the players as well as a $64.3-million salary cap in 2013-14.
Other highlights, according to a source, include a seven-year contract term limit for free agents and eight years for players re-signing with the same team. The deal also includes a 35 per cent yearly variance in salary and no more than 50 per cent difference between any two seasons.
“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, who was involved in the negotiations.
It’s not clear when the season will start or exactly how many games will be played, though Winnipeg Jets defenceman Ron Hainsey – also a key figure in the negotiations – said he expects it to be 48 or 50 games.
The league was on the verge of cancelling a second season due to a work stoppage. Bettman had set a deadline of Jan. 11 to get a deal done to save the season.
“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.”
Hainsey said the pension ended up being a key component of the agreement.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that the pension is the centrepiece of this deal for the players,” said Hainsey.
The lockout ended up costing the league 510 regular-season games – plus the all-star game in Columbus – 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 US$3.3-billion last season, and it remains to be seen how quickly fans and sponsors will return when the puck is dropped again.
After all, 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. “As the players, you kind of understand that and you accepted that. 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 and obviously hockey.
“We knew we were in that position and I think as a union we got the best deal we could possibly get.”
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. “The players made what can only be characterized as enormous concessions. And so you want to make sure that the players understand what happened the last time and that they take that as the beginnings of where things go from here.”
Negotiations got off to a rocky start.
The first offer tabled by the NHL on July 13 was intended to be a wishlist 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 a surprise 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 off on 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,” said Bettman. “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 Sidney 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 new 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. But by the same token I have a long-term responsibility to this game and to the fans of the game to make sure we have a healthy product. Too many people are forgetting where we were 10 years ago. And the fact is we didn’t have a healthy game, and we had too many franchises that couldn’t continue.
“We did what we had to do in 2004 to make it right, and we’re focused with our owners on what we need to make this game healthy for our fans.”
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. A series of 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. That’s where the deal was signed to save a shortened NHL season.