By Stu Hackel
At 5 a.m. on Sunday morning, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr stepped before reporters' microphones at a midtown Manhattan hotel to announce they had reached an agreement on the framework of a deal to end the owners' 113-day lockout of the players. The agreement came after a marathon bargaining session of 16 hours, and a typically stormy week of talks in which the distrust between the sides -- something that was a near-constant for the length of this process -- made some people wonder if the season could be saved.
Details of the agreement have not been officially announced, nor has a start date for the season. It could be a 50-game schedule, which would begin on Jan. 15, or a 48-game slate that would start on Jan. 19. That determination will be made based on how quickly teams believe they can recall their players to get training camp under way and at what point during the next few days lawyers can finalize the language of the CBA so both the owners and players can ratify the agreement.
UPDATE: There are now reports that training camps won't open before Friday and perhaps as late as Monday, with the season being 48 games. The NHL Board of Governors will meet this coming Wednesday. The schedule, according to reports, would begin on Jan. 19 with all 30 teams in action. None of this is confirmed.
It seems that on many of the final issues, both sides gave in on previously intractable stances.
The players agreed to the owners' desire for a 10-year deal, with an opt-out after eight, and the owners agreed to move off their $60 million salary cap for 2013-14. It was set at $64.3 million, closer to the players' desired $65 million figure, while the floor remained at $44 million at the suggestion of the players.
In an effort to prevent backdiving contracts designed to circumvent the cap, salaries cannot vary more than 35 per cent from year to year (the owners had initially asked for a five percent variance) and at no point can salary go below 50 percent of the highest year.
Individual player contracts can be as long as seven years -- eight for a team signing its own player. (The owners had sought a five-year limit, then raised it to six, with the re-signing player limited to seven; there had previously been no limits.)
The players' share of revenue, which varied from 54-57 percent of Hockey Related Revenue in the last CBA will be set at 50 percent for the entire length of this deal.
TSN.ca has some additional details on the agreement here.
Prior to this week's meetings, there had already been agreement on some significant issues. Revenue sharing among the clubs will be increased to $200 million annually, a boost from the league's previous level, which was around $150 million. The players had proposed a $250 million pool, including the creation of what they called an "Industry Growth Fund" -- $100 million to be administered by the commissioner's office to assist the less wealthy clubs. That fund will be part of the new agreement, although it is unclear at the moment how large it will be.
Other CBA matters that are less economically related include a new appeals process on player suspensions. The appeal of any suspension longer than five games will now be heard by a third-party rather than by the NHL commissioner. The players had objected to the previous appeal process because the person hearing the appeal appoints the person who makes the original ruling, and they sought a neutral perspective on that.
Additionally, the NHL Entry Draft will see a change so that every team that misses the playoffs will have an opportunity to win the weighted lottery and get the first pick. Previously, the team that won the lottery could only move up four spots in the draft order, which excluded most of the non-playoff clubs from drafting first overall.
The agreement is still subject to some important hurdles, including the not-insignificant actual legal writing of the document, considering that late last week the players accused the owners of altering written versions of the document from what had earlier been agreed upon) and ratification by the NHLPA and the NHL's Board of Governors.
Why it came together
Reaching this deal was due to a few factors:
1. The work of Federal Mediator Scot Beckenbaugh. He rejoined the talks last Monday and, even following the most contentious moments, was able to get the sides to find the commonality that was so elusive during the course of negotiations. Even this past week, when things might have derailed, Beckenbaugh worked diligently to get things back on track. After making progress earlier in the week, relations between the sides grew very testy when the players suspected that the league purposely altered the agreement document to remove penalties levied against the clubs for misreporting revenue. As a result, the sides did not meet face to face on Thursday, but Beckenbaugh shuttled between the league's offices and the hotel in Manhattan where the NHLPA had encamped and was able to get discussions moving again. He brought the sides together on Friday afternoon to begin the final slog to the finish line. While the players always were in favor of mediation, the owners had resisted it earlier in the process, and even when Beckenbaugh first joined the talks in December, the league was not especially optimistic that what he offered would be helpful. They became more supportive recently, however, and his participation -- as Bettman noted in the video above -- was essential.
2. The threat by the players of disclaiming interest in their union. That essentially meant dissolving it as their bargaining agent in these negotiations. Had they actually done so, they would have removed the legal obstacles preventing them from pursing anti-trust litigation against the owners. If lawsuits of that nature had proceeded, and if a judge ruled in favor of the players, the owners would have been liable for triple the monetary damages being sought. This was a tactic to get the league to bargain more actively when it showed little willingness to compromise on key issues and it was only put before the players reluctantly by the NHLPA leadership rather late in the process; some labor law experts and observers believed the union should have gone this route weeks, if not months, ago. The players first voted to give their executive committee the authority to disclaim interest in late December, with an expiration date of Jan. 2, and as that date came closer, progress began to be made. When it expired and there was no agreement, the players detected that the owners changed their approach to bargaining, so they voted again to give their executive that authority and an agreement followed in short order.
On Canada's Sportnet, Phoenix Coyotes Captain Shane Doan told the network's correspondents who were covering the lockout that the players not using the disclaimer weapon had more to do with the deal being concluded, presumably because it indicated to the owners that the players were interested in reaching an agreement. Here's that interview:
3. The removal of owners from the process. At many of the major bargaining sessions, a group of hardline owners sat across the table from the union representatives and players. Those sessions were generally unproductive and, at times, fractious. More progress was made in early December when some less militant owners joined the talks and Bettman and Fehr temporarily excluded themselves. But the hardest of the hardliners, Boston's Jeremy Jacobs and Calgary's Murray Edwards, remained involved and those sessions couldn't finish off the agreement. Talks came crashing to a halt when the players said they wanted Fehr back in the process, that they were not trained in the art of closing the deal, and having their leader present was something they were certainly entitled to do. Edwards reportedly told them that Fehr's return would be a deal-killer and things ground to a halt. Following that episode, the league wisely decided against active ownership participation.
4. The calendar. The concern that not coming to an agreement by January 11 might mean a season would not be played was crucial. Bettman had said that he didn't think less than 48 games made any sense and his time frame included a schedule starting no later than Jan. 19. Some even believed that negotiations would extend beyond this weekend as the sides attempted to wring every last point from each other. But as momentum built during the last couple of days, progress continued until the players and owners were able to announce this framework, which has tentatively brought to a close one of the most belligerent chapters in NHL history.