To outsiders, it all seemed so simple. If only the NHL gave a little and the NHL Players' Association did the same, there would be labour peace in our time. And in the end, that's how it played out.
The league came off some of its hard-line stands early Sunday; the players followed suit and after an emotionally taxing 16-hour session, the two sides and their respective leaders – NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr – announced a tentative 10-year deal had been reached.
"Hopefully, within a very few days," Mr. Fehr said while standing next to a tired-looking Mr. Bettman, "the fans can get back to watching people who are skating, not the two of us."
For four months, NHL fans had grown angry then weary of the league and its players pushing one another to the brink of another cancelled season, possibly the second in eight years. As the two sides scored debating points and tested each other's resolve, it ultimately became clear there was one last chance to save the season.
Both groups met Friday, Saturday and Sunday in New York with Scot Beckenbaugh. The 59-year-old U.S. federal mediator at first went back and forth between the two camps sequestered in different locations – league executives at the head office and the union executives at a hotel two blocks away. As the players and league officials moved closer to an overall agreement, Mr. Beckenbaugh had them sit down face to face to finalize it.
"I have never experienced anything like it," said Boston Bruins' defenceman Andrew Ference. "I'd never been through the nitty-gritty of actual negotiations, being across the table, that kind of pressure cooker … The last time [the NHL locked out its players in 2004-2005], it was easier to sit back and say, 'It's just a split here, a split there.' When you go through the details, you realize the consequences of taking a stance on one issue and how it affects others – like negotiating an entry-level system that's going to affect players that haven't even been drafted yet."
While the players voted Saturday to decertify their union if negotiations failed, Mr. Beckenbaugh was able to get both sides to meet together in the ballroom of New York's Sofitel Hotel. There, they were able to conclude talks on a couple of contentious matters. The NHL came off its hard-line insistence of a $60-million (U.S.) salary cap in Year 2 of the agreement, agreeing to $64.3-million. As well, the league agreed to a seven-year term limit on player contracts after previously saying five years was the hill it was going to die on.
The players made gains on pensions, moving from a defined contribution plan to a defined benefits plan.
For their major concession, the players agreed to a 50-per-cent share of hockey-related revenue – down from 57 per cent – for the entire 10-year term.
"I don't know if [the mood Saturday] was any more or less [nervous] but I think you could tell we were making progress," said Winnipeg Jets defenceman Ron Hainsey, who was head of the players' negotiating committee. "It was a battle. Gary said a month ago it was a tough negotiation. That's what it was."
"It was concessionary bargaining right from the beginning," acknowledged Shane Doan of the Phoenix Coyotes. "We understood that, as much as we didn't want that. We understand the nature of professional sports has kind of changed the last couple of CBAs in football, basketball and obviously hockey. That's the way it's been going for the last 10 years."
The new agreement is expected to be ratified Tuesday by the NHL's board of governors and then by the players, who will report to training camps later this week. Teams will play no less than 48 regular-season games with a full slate of playoff series. How fans will react to the NHL's latest labour dispute is something that won't be known until the first games are played.
Mr. Ference understands how difficult it has been on those who pay to watch NHLers play.
"A couple of kids asked me a few times [about the lockout]. My friends, too," the Bruin defenceman said. "When you look at both sides, it's hard to look past the dollars. But the players do care about the game and it kills us not to play … It was tough. We're hoping all the positive things in our sport shine through."