Abject apologies were the order of the day after the NHL’s board of governors approved the tentative labour agreement Wednesday, although their sincerity was up for debate.
“This great game has been gone for too long and for that we are extremely sorry,” said Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, the chairman of the board of governors, in a rare appearance at an NHL press conference.
As the most powerful and influential owner in the league, Jacobs is regarded as a hardliner who dictated the league’s take-no-prisoners’ strategy in this lockout, during which 510 games were cancelled, and the previous one that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season.
Once the league’s 740 players finish their online ratification vote Saturday – which is expected to pass – the agreement will be official. It will mark the end of the 113-day lockout, and training camps will open the following day, with a truncated 48-game season to begin Jan. 19.
“I know that an explanation or an apology with not erase the hard feelings that have built up over the last few months, but I owe you an apology nonetheless,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who seemed sincere.
Bettman said there will be some sort of benefits offered to the fans, adding he is not ready to announce them. He also said he was well aware of the fury of the public as expressed on social media.
“I followed the tweets, I read the blogs,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do. That effort begins today.”
Bettman and the governors also spoke about their relief at getting a 10-year collective agreement, which calls for a 50-50 share of revenue between the players and owners (down from a 57-per-cent share for the players in the last deal) – something the owners said they needed to help the smaller-revenue teams.
“In the end, neither side got everything they wanted,” Bettman said, adding the agreement “will ensure great economic viability for all our teams.”
However, many of the NHL’s governors and general managers are not sure the fans will be quick to forgive and forget. At least one GM thinks it’s best for the teams to get to work quickly, rather than try to send any messages to the fans that might seem insincere.
“I don’t think there’s any message other than we’re going to be real happy to see you,” said George McPhee of the Washington Capitals. “We’re all hockey fans and this has been hard.
Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman went through two lockouts and one strike as a player. His first lockout as a general manager was not any easier.
“In any labour dispute, the fans get irate,” he said. “I hope this agreement, at 10 years, means there will not be any more for a long time.
“The best thing [a team] can do is win and get in the playoffs to make things positive. [Lightning owner] Jeff Vinik has worked hard to have a positive impact in our community. I hope it’s bought us a little bit of grace.”
While the end of the lockout is in sight, a formal collective agreement will take some time to be put in place. Lawyers for the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association are still working on the first stage: a memorandum of understanding.
That means a lot of major issues have not been officially decided.
The schedule, for example, is still tentative because the league is waiting until the union ratifies the proposed deal before it is released. Also yet to be decided is the trading deadline (which may be April 5 if the union approves) and the date for the beginning of free agency (usually July 1).
If there is one place where the fans are expected to forgive and forget quickly, it is Canada.
Winnipeg Jets chairman Mark Chipman, who spearheaded the team’s move from Atlanta only to see the lockout arrive after one season in Manitoba, certainly hopes that is the case.
“Fortunately, we had an incredible amount of support from our fan base and our sponsors back home,” he said. “I think we’ll all be rewarded in the long run – and that was what it was for: the long run.”
World according to Bettman
During the press conference after the NHL board of governors’ meeting, Bettman discussed everything from his future to threats from Russia’s top hockey league.
On rumours of his departure:
“It’s nothing more than unfounded speculation. I am looking forward to continuing to grow this game both on and off the ice as we have for the last 20 years. I think the opportunities are great and I’m excited to be a part of it.”
On reports some players might stay in Russia and not return to the NHL
“The NHL represents the highest level of hockey in the world. We expect that the best players in the world will want to play here. … I don’t want to get into a ‘what if.’ We’ll see what happens and then we’ll deal with it in an appropriate fashion. I’m not issuing any threats, I’m not going to make any intemperate statements. I’m hoping that the players who are supposed to come back and honour their contracts, they will. I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t want to.”
On player participation in the 2014 Winter Olympics and NHL conference realignment:
“We’ll get to that. Both issues are important, for both the players and the league and the clubs. We know we need to get to that. I believe, as we’ve said all along, neither are bargaining chips. They’re really working together as partners, problem-solving to get to the right place.”
With a report from Joanna Slater