In less than a week, the National Hockey League would have declared the 2012-13 season nonexistent. That deadline proved too dangerous to approach.
Early Sunday morning, the NHL and the NHL Players Association declared the 113-day lockout over. The sides, which had been meeting in New York, announced they had come to a preliminary settlement on a new 10-year collective bargaining agreement. The NHL would have canceled the season Friday had an agreement not been in place.
“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,’’ NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters at the Sofitel Hotel, where the players had been staying during negotiations. “But the basic framework of the deal has been agreed upon. We have to go through a ratification process. The board of governors has to approve it from the league’s side. Obviously, the players have to approve it as well.’’
The NHL’s board of governors and the NHLPA’s executive board must ratify the agreement, which is considered a formality.
“Hopefully we’re at a place where all those things will proceed fairly rapidly and with some dispatch,’’ said Donald Fehr, the NHLPA’s executive director. “We’ll get back to what we called business as usual just as fast as we can.’’
The league has yet to determine when training camps will open or when the season will begin. In one scenario, a 48-game schedule for the Bruins would begin Jan. 19. The Bruins were scheduled to play the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre that night. Nonconference games will not be played.
The sides have been tangling since well before Sept. 15, when the lockout officially started. There were thaws and blowups in the dispute. The most dramatic peaks and valleys took place in New York in early December during owner-player meetings, which occurred without Bettman or Fehr at the bargaining table. The sides reported progress, but talks blew up Dec. 6, when Bettman denounced Fehr for declaring an agreement was near.
The lockout-busting breakthrough took place over the last few days with the help of mediation. Scot Beckenbaugh, deputy director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, participated in internal meetings with the NHL and NHLPA Friday and Saturday. Under Beckenbaugh’s guidance, the NHL and NHLPA reconvened Saturday for the bargaining session that ultimately resulted in the agreement.
Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan used the term “concessionary bargaining’’ to describe the nature of negotiations. From the start of talks, the players recognized the NHL would be seeking givebacks. Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, as the chairman of the NHL’s board of governors, was critical in spearheading the league’s hard-line approach.
The centerpiece of the new collective bargaining agreement is the 50-50 split of revenue, which totaled $3.3 billion in 2011-12. Under the previous agreement, players — whose average annual salary was $2.4 million — had received 57 percent of hockey-related revenue. In its initial proposal, which it filed in July, the NHL flipped the percentages by reducing player share to 43 percent.
To offset the dip in revenue share, the players will receive $300 million in make-whole money. The make-whole provision lessens the revenue reduction for players under contract.
The players also ceded term limits on contracts. A player’s maximum contract is now seven years, eight if re-signing with his current team. There had been no term limits under the previous agreement.
The NHL pursued contract limits to negate the cap-circumventing practice of “backdiving,’’ which became popular in the previous agreement. Teams lowered a player’s annual average value by tacking bonus years at minimal salaries at the end of his contract. For example, the Vancouver Canucks signed goalie Roberto Luongo to a 12-year, $64 million deal. In 2020-21 and 2021-22, the last two years of the contract, Luongo will earn $1 million annually. At the end of his contract, Luongo will be 43 years old, well past the playing age of a typical goalie.
Last month, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said contract limits, specifically a five-year maximum, would be the “hill we will die on.’’
Within the contracts, there will be a 35 percent variance maximum from year to year. The NHL originally had proposed a 5 percent annual variance limit, which drew the players’ disapproval. The variance rule is another step toward eliminating backdiving. There were no variance limits previously.
This season, the salary cap will remain at $70.2 million (prorated), the ceiling under the previous deal. The cap will dip to $64.3 million in 2013-14. The NHL had pushed for $60 million, but the NHLPA, fearing the hit on escrow payments, insisted on a higher ceiling. Each club will be allowed two buyouts, which will not count against the cap, to dip under the 2013-14 ceiling.
The Bruins have approximately $67 million committed to 12 forwards, six defensemen, and three goalies. That sum includes the injured Marc Savard ($4,007,143) and goaltender Tim Thomas ($5 million). If necessary, the Bruins can place Savard (concussion-related issues) on long-term injured reserve, then exceed the cap by his average annual value. Even if Thomas changes his mind about sitting out 2012-13, the Bruins would not welcome back the goalie. The Bruins will classify Thomas a suspended player and be responsible for his cap hit unless they can find a taker via trade or waivers.
One concession the players received was a defined benefit pension plan. Details of the plan have yet to be finalized. But Winnipeg Jets defenseman Ron Hainsey, one of the players most involved in negotiations, termed the pension plan as the agreement’s centerpiece.
The teams’ first task is to recall players to their respective home bases. At one point during the lockout, there were 12 Bruins playing in Europe. Brad Marchand, Adam McQuaid, Tuukka Rask, and Shawn Thornton most recently have been practicing in Boston. Teams are planning on a seven-day camp with no preseason games before the regular season kicks off.
“As players we can now do what we do best,’’ Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference, who participated in the lockout-ending sessions, posted on Twitter. “Proudly pull on our jerseys and play with complete passion for our cities and fans. I hope that we can replace the intense negativity brought on our sport with a reminder of how great it can be when the action is on the ice. From my grandparents to our B’s fans, I am deeply sorry that we had to miss so much hockey. All we can do now is play our hearts out for you.’’