Penguins likely to return by midmonth

Players' agreement reached in New York; schedule in works

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Early January turns out to be the perfect time for a thaw -- at least in the National Hockey League.

League officials and the NHL Players' Association said early Sunday that they have assembled the framework of a collective bargaining agreement that, if ratified, would pull the NHL out of an extended deep freeze by ending the lockout that has kept the league out of business for more than 3 1/2 months.

Both sides are expected to approve the agreement, snuffing the possibility of losing an entire season for the second time in less than a decade. No games were played in 2004-05 because of another lockout.

Although there had been much positive movement toward a settlement in recent days, optimism had mutated into despair several times during the negotiations. Consequently, the upbeat reactions of those involved in the dispute were laced with relief.

"I'm pretty happy and excited that things finally got settled," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said.

Penguins general manager Ray Shero echoed that sentiment, noting that "there were times over the last few months when you'd get your hopes up, only to have things fall apart."

Although nothing can happen until the deal is approved by both parties -- something that is expected to happen over the next several days -- training camps are expected to open around midweek.

Until then, members of the Penguins plan to continue with the player-organized workouts they've been holding at Southpointe most weekdays since early September.

The league still has not announced whether the regular-season schedule for its 30 teams will consist of 48 or 50 games. That decision will determine when play will start, with Jan. 15 and Jan. 19 the most likely dates.

Regardless of the number of games, all will be intraconference, which means the Penguins will play against only the other 14 Eastern Conference clubs.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman imposed the lockout Sept. 16, a day after the previous CBA expired. It took 113 days to forge the agreement reached in New York City shortly after 4:30 Sunday morning, following a 16-hour negotiating session overseen by federal mediator Scot Beckenbaugh.

Although the league and the union announced then that the CBA framework was in place, work on the language of the agreement continued throughout the day.

NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr told reporters at the negotiating site that he hoped such details would be dealt with "fairly rapidly" and that the public's attention would shift to on-ice issues rather than labor matters.

"We'll get back to what we used to call 'business as usual' just as fast as we can," he said.

Some highlights of the tentative agreement:

• Although the CBA covers 10 years, the parties will be able to opt out after eight.

• Teams can spend up to $70.2 million (pro-rated) on player contracts in the season that will begin later this month, but the salary-cap ceiling for the 2013-14 season will be $64.3 million. The Penguins have about $61 million in cap space committed for the coming season, although the total could change, based on their 23-player roster.

• Teams will be permitted two contract buyouts in the coming offseason.

• Contracts can run a maximum of seven years, or eight if a player is being re-signed.

• The free-agency signing period will continue to start July 1.

• The salary in multiyear contracts will be allowed to vary as much as 35 percent from one year to the next, but no more than 50 percent between any two years over the life of the deal.

• The players will receive 50 percent of hockey-related revenue, down from 57 percent in the previous CBA. Players will be given $300 million in "Make Whole" money to cover losses in the transition to the new financial setup.

• All 14 nonplayoff teams will have a chance to end up with the first overall draft choice because of the removal of a stipulation that teams can move up no more than four slots in the draft order.

• Revenue-sharing funds will increase to $200 million per season.

The NHL and NHLPA plan to deal with participation in the Olympics, beginning with the 2014 Sochi Games, outside of the CBA, but early indications are that players will be allowed to participate in them.

People who work at businesses that rely heavily on Penguins games to generate revenue, such as restaurants and bars near Consol Energy Center, have said the lockout had a profoundly negative impact on them, with hours and income severely reduced for many.

"It feels like this could have been done a long time ago, but this process takes on a life of its own," Penguins player representative Craig Adams said. "I'm glad we got it done, for all of the people who make their living off of the game."

Those people presumably will be excited to have the NHL back in business. How some fans who expressed outrage that the lockout lasted so long -- and advocated everything from boycotts to turning their backs on the ice for the first minute of play in the opening game -- will react remains to be seen.

The Penguins cut off season-ticket sales at about 16,000, and the team's vice president of communications, Tom McMillan, said recently that 45 people had canceled their accounts because of the lockout. Finding buyers for those seats won't be a problem, because the Penguins have a waiting list of about 9,500 for season tickets.

There could be a bigger backlash in some less-established markets, however, with fans declining to purchase tickets and/or team merchandise as a form of protest.

"I can only speak for our market, but I hope that over the last seven years we've established something here that the fans will be excited to come back to," Mr. Shero said. "But we can't take that for granted."



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Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter @MolinariPG.


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