NHL, union reach tentative deal to save season
By Rob Rossi
Published: Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013, 8:00 a.m.
It is game on for the National Hockey League.
The NHL and Players' Association have agreed to terms on a new labor contract, ending a 113-day lockout.
“It's exciting to know we will be back playing hockey,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said.
A shortened regular-season schedule was being finalized, but the NHL hoped to play as many as 50 games starting no later than Jan. 19.
Training camps will open within a week.
Evgeni Malkin, the reigning MVP and scoring champion, was in Bratislava, Slovakia, when he received word of the agreement.
“Of course, I'm very excited,” he said.
Malkin had spent the lockout playing for his hometown Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the Kontinental Hockey League. Former Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar was his teammate with Metallurg.
As of Sunday morning, Malkin and Gonchar planned to play for Metallurg against Slovan Bratislava, then head to Moscow to prepare for returning to North America.
“It is great news,” Gonchar said, projecting that he and Malkin will be in North America “in a few days.”
The deal was struck around 4:45 a.m. Sunday after a marathon, 16-hour bargaining session that began Saturday afternoon in New York. Top NHL and union officials and federal mediator Scot Beckenbaugh worked to find common ground on the remaining issues: players' pension, a Year 2 salary-cap and contracting rights.
Penguins union rep Craig Adams rejoined the negotiations in New York late Saturday.
The new deal is for 10 years, with mutual opt-out clauses after Year 8.
The contract must be ratified by the 30 club governors and approximately 740 players.
Players will receive a defined pension program for the first time.
Owners get the financial relief they said was necessary.
There will be a 50/50 split of revenue, with $300 million outside of that to honor current players' contracts.
Players received 57 percent of revenue in the last labor contract.
The agreement will allow clubs two amnesty buyouts prior to the 2013-14 season, and those buyouts will not count against that Year 2 cap of $64.3 million.
The cap for the shortened 2013 season will be $60 million, but clubs can spend up to $70.2 million on payroll as part of honoring current contracts.
Owners also wanted to build into the new deal restrictions for front-loaded contracts that have negatively impacted franchise debt ratios – and the NHL made gains on that objective.
The deal calls for a season-to-season variance of 35 percent on multiyear player contracts, and the lowest season cannot be less than 50 percent of the highest.
The variance formula will prevent clubs from signing deals such as the extension the Penguins awarded Crosby in July. He will be paid $60 million over the first five seasons of the 12-year, $104.4 million contract that picks up next year.
The Penguins' plan to keep Crosby and Malkin together through the duration of their careers looks more like a sure thing.
Free agents will not be able to sign a deal for more than seven years, though a club can sign its own player for eight years.
Malkin is eligible to sign an extension this summer, and under the new labor deal, the Penguins can offer him an extra year of guaranteed money.
The league and union, led by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, often went weeks without face-to-face negotiations once the lockout began Sept. 15 after the last labor contract expired.
Players hired Fehr in December 2010 after two years of tumult with union leadership. Players sought strength at the top after the rank-and-file were dissatisfied with the end to the 2004-05 lockout that ushered in a salary-cap era and a 24 percent rollback of salaries.
Fehr had made his name over three decades with the Major League Baseball Players Association, a tenure that included multiple work stoppages and an in-season strike that wiped out the 1995 World Series.
This lockout was the third of Bettman's two-decade tenure, and he faced pressure from corporate partners and moderate owners to save the season.
At one point in early December, owners and players met for two days in New York without Bettman or Fehr. Those meetings were sparked by Penguins ownership and Crosby teaming with influential agent Pat Brisson to bring moderate voices into the negotiations.
Even Penguins icon Mario Lemieux could not make this save.
A deal was close on Wednesday before negotiations stalled over the pension plan, contracting rights and salary cap.
Beckenbaugh, the federal mediator, spent Thursday through Saturday morning working separately with the NHL and NHLPA to try and spark another round of bargaining.
He became the lockout version of former Penguin Max Talbot, the unexpected Game 7 hero.
Though the season was saved, the NHL canceled its two signature regular-season events -- the New Year's Day Winter Classic outdoor game and the All-Star Game. In all, the league lost 625 games from Oct. 11-Jan. 14, or about 51 percent of the season.
The Penguins lost 42 games, including 20 at Consol Energy Center.
A Penguins home game was projected to be worth about $2.1 million to the region.
Of course, as was the case with the 2011 NBA lockout, a lot of the damage from this work stoppage could be undone if the NHL stages a memorable postseason.
For that, the league may look to Pittsburgh, where the Penguins will welcome back a healthy Crosby, the face of the NHL. He has missed most of the past two years with concussion symptoms, and he will be joined by Malkin.
The Penguins are better suited than many clubs coming out of the lockout as they try to win the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2009.
Their major offseason losses were center Jordan Staal and defenseman Zbynek Michalek, each traded.
However, coach Dan Bylsma believes center Brandon Sutter, who was acquired in the Staal trade, is an ideal No. 3 center to play behind Crosby and Malkin. Also, management has high hopes that top prospect Simon Despres can win one of the top-six defense spots.
Goaltending will be a key in a short season, and the Penguins bolstered depth at that position over the summer by signing former NHL starter Tomas Vokoun for two years.
Though Marc-Andre Fleury remains the franchise player in goal, Vokoun will be called upon more than a No. 2 goalie normally would because of the compressed schedule.
The Penguins are coming off a disappointing first-round playoff exit, a loss to rival Philadelphia.
“We are mad,” Malkin said. “We will be hungry to win the (Stanley) Cup. It has been too long.”
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