By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - The National Hockey League (NHL) and locked-out players reached a tentative agreement on Sunday to end a costly labor dispute and salvage a condensed season that was days away from being canceled entirely.
The deal was announced jointly by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players' Association (NHLPA) Executive Director Donald Fehr following a marathon 16-hour negotiation session that began on Saturday at a Manhattan hotel.
"We have to dot a lot of I's and cross a lot of T's. There is still a lot of work to be done, but the basic framework has been agreed upon," Bettman told reporters.
"We have to go through a ratification process and the Board of Governors has to approve it from the league side and, obviously, the players have to approve it as well."
Bettman said details on the upcoming season could be released later on Sunday and some reports suggest a 50-game season, down from the usual 82 games, could begin January 15.
News of the tentative deal came just days ahead of the NHL's self-imposed January 11 deadline to reach an agreement or risk losing a season that was originally due to begin last October.
With talks unraveling and the NHL on the verge of canceling the entire season, the 113-day lockout ended with the help of a U.S. federal mediator who enticed the two parties back to the bargaining table for a final push to make a deal.
The return of the NHL created an instant buzz across hockey mad Canada, with even Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper greeting the news with relief.
"Glad to see a deal between the #NHL players and the league. Great news for hockey fans and communities across Canada." Harper tweeted.
Many teams, particularly those based in the United States, are bracing for a fan backlash while owners and players begin to calculate the damage done by the lockout.
After four work stoppages in 20 years fans appeared mixed on whether to forgive or punish both sides for dragging them through another labor dispute.
The lockout took a toll on Canada's economy, specifically the many sporting goods stores, bars and other businesses that rely heavily on alcohol and merchandise sales during the hockey season, which lasts nine months when played in full.
"The NHL lockout piled on to what was already a slowing underlying Canadian growth rate in the fall," Doug Porter, deputy chief economist at BMO Capital Markets, told the Globe and Mail newspaper recently.
The dispute, which the league has said was costing it about $18-$20 million a day, or about $2 billion to date, began in mid-September when the previous collective bargaining agreement expired with both sides at odds over how to split the NHL's $3.3 billion in revenue.
Despite a new $2 billion television deal, record revenues and Bettman's boast that the NHL was enjoying unprecedented popularity, owners decided to once again test the loyalty of sponsors, business partners and fans suffering from lockout fatigue by seeking more concessions from players.
The dispute, the first since a lockout wiped out the entire 2004-05 campaign, is the second longest by the NHL and players and it is expected that fans could be slow to return to the arenas.
"NHL fans have been too quick to embrace the NHL after a lockout. Let players & owners know your anger by voting with your wallet." one disgruntled fan posted on Twitter.
Even some NHL players voiced their concerns for the likely challenge that awaits NHL teams who rely on less traditional hockey markets for their fan base.
"It's going to be tough, especially for some of the smaller market teams but at the same time hockey is one of the most exciting, if not the most exciting, game in the world and we have great passionate fans and they are very knowledgeable about the game," said Tampa Bay Lightning's Steven Stamkos, the NHL's leading goal scorer last season.
"You can just hope that they understand that this was a tough process for both side and we tried to make it as painless as possible."
With the two sides reportedly settling on a new 10-year deal with an opt-out clause after the eighth year, fans may not have to concern themselves about another work stoppage for a decade.
While players can claim a number of small victories, including a more favorable salary cap -- $64.3 million per team from $60 million -- it is the owners who once again won the war, securing the 50-50 split in hockey related revenues they had been seeking since early in negotiations.
Under the previous agreement players received 57 percent of revenues. The new deal brings the NHL more in line with deals negotiated last year by the National Football League and National Basketball Association.
The owners also got contract term limits for free agents set at seven years, or eight years for a any team re-signing its own player.
There are still many details to be filled in, including drug-testing and whether the NHL will continue to participate in the Winter Olympics.
With news of a tentative agreement in place, the hundreds of players who chose to ride out the dispute playing in European leagues must immediately join their NHL clubs for an abbreviated training camp.
There is also much work ahead for teams, who must quickly digest the new CBA and the rules they will operate under while filling out rosters.
New Jersey Devils netminder Martin Brodeur, who has endured three work stoppages during his career, said NHL players are prepared to put on a good show to win back disgruntled fans.
"I think for the fans it is going to be pretty exciting," said Brodeur. "Coaches know you can't afford to lose many games because a streak of three or four games winning or losing is going to decide whether you are going to end up in the playoffs or not make the playoffs.
"So it's going to be exciting but hard for the players, with a game probably every two days it's going to be like three months of playoff hockey."
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Additional reporting by Russ Blinch in Toronto; Editing by John Mehaffey and Frank Pingue)