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Drop the puck: NHL, players settle labor dispute

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By IRA PODELL and RONALD BLUM
AP Sports Writers

NEW YORK (AP) - They walked into a Manhattan hotel, knowing they were running out of time to save their season.

After 16 hours of tense talks, the NHL and its players finally achieved their elusive deal early Sunday morning, finding a way to restart a sport desperate to regain momentum and boost its prominence.

Ending a bitter dispute that wiped out a large part of the hockey season for the third time in less than two decades, the league and its union agreed to the framework of a 10-year labor contract that will allow a delayed schedule to start later this month.

On the 113th day of a management lockout and five days before the league's deadline for a deal, the bleary-eyed sides held a 6 a.m. news conference to announce there will be a season, after all.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and union head Donald Fehr both appeared drained, wearing sweaters and not neckties, when they stood side by side at the hotel and announced labor peace.

"We have reached an agreement on the framework of a new collective bargaining agreement, the details of which need to be put to paper," Bettman said. "We've got to dot a lot of Is, cross a lot of Ts. There's still a lot of work to be done, but the basic framework of the deal has been agreed upon."

Lawyers will spend the next few days drafting a memorandum of agreement.

The stoppage led to the cancellation of at least 480 games - the exact length of the curtailed schedule has not been determined - bringing the total of lost regular-season games to a minimum 3,408 during three lockouts under Bettman.

The agreement, which replaces the deal that expired Sept. 15, must be ratified by the 30 team owners and approximately 740 players.

"Hopefully, within just a very few days, the fans can get back to watching people who are skating, and not the two of us," Fehr said.

Fehr became executive director of the NHL Players Association in December 2010 after leading baseball players through two strikes and a lockout.

Players conceded early on in talks, which began in June, that they would accept a smaller percentage of revenue, and the negotiations were about how much lower.

"It was a battle," said Winnipeg Jets defenseman Ron Hainsey, a key member of the union's bargaining team. "Players obviously would rather not have been here, but our focus now is to give the fans whatever it is - 48 games, 50 games - the most exciting season we can."

With much of the money from its $2 billion, 10-year contract with NBC back loaded toward the Stanley Cup playoffs in the spring - and now perhaps early summer - the league preferred to time the dispute for the start of the season in the fall. Management made its decision knowing regular-season attendance rose from 16,534 in 2003-04 to 16,954 in 2005-06 and only seven teams experienced substantial drops.

Still, the lockout could wipe out perhaps $1 billion in revenue this season, given about 40 percent of the regular-season schedule won't be played. And while the stoppage was major news in Canada, it was an afterthought for many American sports fans.

"They could have gotten here a lot sooner," said Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based sports business consulting firm Sportscorp Ltd. "They didn't hear a hue and cry from the fans, especially in the United States, when hockey wasn't played. That's very distressing. That indicates there's a level of apathy that is troubling. In contrast, in the NFL when there was a threat of canceling a preseason weekend, the nation was up in arms."

Hockey's first labor dispute was an 11-day strike in 1992 that led to 30 games being postponed. Bettman, a former NBA executive under David Stern, became the NHL commissioner in February 1993. He presided over a 103-day lockout in 1994-95 that ended with a deal on Jan. 11, then a 301-day lockout in 2004-05 that made the NHL the first major North American professional sports league to lose an entire season. The NHL obtained a salary cap in the agreement that followed that dispute and now wanted more gains.

"It was concessionary bargaining right from the beginning," Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. "As the players, you kind of understand that and you accepted that. As much as you didn't want to, we understand that the nature of professional sports has kind of changed with the last couple CBAs starting with football and basketball."

This deal was reached with the assistance of Scot Beckenbaugh of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, a veteran of the 2004-05 NHL talks, then Major League Soccer's negotiations in 2010 and NFL and NBA talks the following year. Beckenbaugh spent Friday walking back and forth between the league's office and the hotel where players were staying, meeting with each side to set up the final talks.

"Fans throughout North America will have the opportunity to return to a favorite past time and thousands of working men and women and small businesses will no longer be deprived of their livelihoods," said George Cohen, the FMCS director.

Sam Flood, NBC Sports' executive producer, said his production team was "counting the seconds until the season begins." NBC announcer Mike Emrick said players will have more pressure because of the shortened schedule.

"The effect of even a two-game losing streak will be four," he said

The NHL's revenue of $3.3 billion last season lagged well behind the NFL ($9 billion), Major League Baseball ($7.5 billion) and the NBA ($5 billion), and the deal will lower the hockey players' percentage from 57 to 50 - owners originally had proposed 46 percent.

This was the third lockout among the major U.S. sports in a period of just over a year. A four-month NFL lockout ended in July 2011 with the loss of only one exhibition game, and an NBA lockout caused each team's schedule to be cut from 82 games to 66 last season.

As part of the deal:

- Players will receive $300 million in transition payments over three years to account for existing contracts, pushing their revenue share over 50 percent at the start of the deal.

- Players gained a defined benefit pension plan for the first time.

- The salary cap for this season will be $70.2 million before prorating to adjust for the shortened season, and the cap will drop to $64.3 million in 2013-14 - the same amount as 2011-12. There will be a salary floor of $44 million in those years.

- Free agents will be limited to contracts of seven years (eight for those re-signed with their former club).

- Salaries within a contract may not vary by more than 35 percent year to year, and the lowest year must be at least 50 percent of the highest year.

- There were no changes to eligibility for free agency and salary arbitration.

- The threshold for teams to release players in salary arbitration will increase from $1.75 million to $3 million.

- Each team may use two buyouts to terminate contracts before the 2013-14 or 2014-15 seasons for two-thirds of the remaining guaranteed income. The buyout will be included in the players' revenue share but not the salary cap.

- The minimum salary will remain at $525,000 this season and will rise to $750,000 by 2021-12.

- Either side may terminate the deal after the 2019-20 season.

- Revenue sharing will increase to $200 million annually and rise with revenue.

- An industry growth fund of $60 million will be funded by the sides over three years and replenished as need.

- Participation of NHL and its players in the 2014 Sochi Olympics will be determined later in discussions also involving the International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation.

___

AP Sports Writer Rachel Cohen contributed to this report.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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