IRA PODELL,AP Sports Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman felt all the anger directed toward him as the lockout dragged on and threatened to wipe out the entire hockey season.
So when he stood on a podium bearing the league shield on Wednesday and announced that the owners unanimously approved the labor deal reached over the weekend with the players’ association, he also took the time to mend badly damaged fences.
“To the players who were very clear they wanted to be on the ice and not negotiating labor contracts, to our partners who support the league financially and personally, and most importantly to our fans, who love and have missed NHL hockey, I am sorry,” Bettman said.
The league’s board of governors met in a Manhattan hotel Wednesday and overwhelmingly approved the agreement that was hammered out early Sunday on the 113th day of the lockout.
Bettman was well aware of all the negative talk during the four-month dispute that kept hockey off the ice and was contrite in announcing the latest step by the owners. He said he wants to look forward and not back at the mess created by the work stoppage.
“We know that no words of apology or explanation will soften the disappointment,” Bettman said. “I read the letters, I followed the tweets, I read the blogs. We have a lot of work to do.
“As commissioner of the National Hockey League it sometimes falls upon me to make tough decisions that disappoint and occasionally anger players and fans. This was a long and extremely difficult negotiation — one that took a lot longer than anybody wanted. I know it caused frustration, disappointment and even suffering to a lot of people who have supported the National Hockey League in many different ways.”
In his nearly 20 years as commissioner, Bettman has presided over three lockouts. One caused the cancellation of the 2004-05 season, another led to a 48-game season in 1995 — much like is expected for this season.
The latest lockout forced the cancellation of 510 games. Overall, 2,208 games have been lost by labor disputes during his tenure. But Bettman was quick to call any speculation he might consider stepping down from his post as “unfounded.”
“I am looking forward to continuing to grow this game, both on and off the ice, as we have over the last 20 years,” he said. “I think the opportunities are great, and I am excited to be a part of them.”
Players are expected to vote on the deal Friday and Saturday. If a majority of the more than 700 members in good standing agree to the terms, training camps can open Sunday. A 48-game season is likely to begin Jan. 19.
The NHL and the union are still drafting a memorandum of understanding that must be signed before training camps open. The players’ association wants as much of the document as possible to be completed before voting begins.
The union is busy calling players and agents to educate them about the changes and additions to the agreement. The vote will be done electronically.
There will be no more than seven days between the opening of camps and the start of the season, and no preseason games will be played. Teams will be challenged to be ready right from the start.
“It’s one thing to skate and check out their conditioning and everything else, but you don’t get a chance to experiment much with lineups and lines and combinations,” Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee said. “That’s the hardest thing for managers right now. A lot of unknowns … but we’re excited nonetheless to get going.”
Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, who forged a Hall of Fame playing career over 22 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings, isn’t concerned about getting adjusted to the new deal because the key issue of the salary cap isn’t all that different.
“As things go along, every change you make, every rule you put in whether it’s on ice or off ice, generally has unforeseen consequences that come up with it,” said Yzerman, who retired one season after the 2004-05 lockout. “I don’t see it being terribly difficult.
“Over the next year or two the market will readjust and that will sort itself out.”
The agreement is for 10 years, but either side can opt out after eight. The previous deal was in effect for seven seasons.
“It’s one that will stand the test of time with a system where all teams can be competitive and have a chance to make the playoffs and even win the Stanley Cup,” Bettman said. “It guarantees that our attention from now on will stay where it belongs, on the ice.”
After the players vote to ratify, clubs can begin the process of winning back fans. Bettman declined to give specifics because he didn’t want to be presumptuous that the union would give its approval.
“The National Hockey League has the responsibility to earn back your trust and support, whether you watch one game or every game,” Bettman said. “That effort begins today. The players are ready to play their hearts out for you, the teams are preparing to welcome you back with open arms, the wait is just about over.
“Like all of you, we can’t wait to drop the puck.”
The NHL won’t release the new schedule until players ratify the deal. The regular season was supposed to begin Oct. 11, but the lockout wrecked those plans after it took effect Sept. 16.
The outdoor Winter Classic and the All-Star game won’t be played this season.
Last season, the NHL generated $3.3 billion of revenue, and the new deal will lower the players’ percentage from 57 to 50.
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. They also 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.
The minimum salary will remain at $525,000, and 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.
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 be replenished as needed.
Issues such as whether NHL players will participate in the 2014 Olympics and realignment within the league will be addressed with the union down the line.
“Together our collective future is extremely bright,” said Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, who is also the chairman of the board of governors. “Our only interest now is to look ahead and focus on what this great game can provide to the best sports fans in the world.”
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