For NHL owners and players, it's time to shut up and play

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

Good morning.

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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. (Reuters)

If you were one of the many fans infuriated by the NHL lockout, one of the many bored by the bickering, one of the many who said, "Wake me when it's over," well, rise and shine. It's safe to poke your head out of the covers now.

The NHL is back.

The owners and players emerged from their deep, dark night about 5 a.m. ET on Sunday in New York, the city that never sleeps, after a marathon session with a U.S. federal mediator produced a tentative collective bargaining agreement.

This being the digital age, the news was broken not by the media that had been staking out the site of talks -- the NHL Players' Association's Manhattan hotel. No, the news was broken by Andrew Ference, a player involved in meetings, who tweeted a single character, a symbol -- a thumbs up.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Don Fehr gave quick statements to the media, with Bettman confirming an agreement on the "framework" of the new CBA. But they took no questions. It was a long night, and there is still a long way to go.

[Puck Daddy: Details of the new 10-year deal]

Many details need to be ironed out, such as whether there will be a 48- or 50-game season and when exactly it will start. The legal language needs to be shaped, polished and reviewed. Both the owners and the players need to ratify the deal.

But barring something unforeseen, training camps will open this week and the season will open next week. The league is likely to feature rivalry games early and an intra-conference schedule. There will be a full playoff season. The Stanley Cup -- stamped with the shameful "SEASON NOT PLAYED" after a lockout canceled the 2004-05 season -- will be awarded. This will be like '94-95, when a lockout ended in January and produced a sprint-to-the-finish shortened season.

Some of the final compromises: The term of the CBA will be 10 years, with an out after eight years. Contract lengths will be limited to seven years, or eight if a team re-signs its own player. The salary cap in Year 2 will be $64.3 million, the same as it was last season. All were contentious issues.

Who won?

We should know better by now than to declare winners and losers before a CBA has played out, let alone before a CBA has been put to paper. The owners supposedly crushed the union last time, forcing the players to accept a salary cap and a 24-percent rollback, and look at what happened: The way the deal worked out, the players wanted to keep playing under it, and the owners were willing to stage the third lockout in three negotiations.

That said, it's safe to say everyone lost, but both sides can declare victory in relative terms.

Everyone lost because a third straight lockout was unacceptable -- especially a lockout this long, when it wasn't about a fundamental issue like the very existence of the salary cap. Everyone lost because the NHL brand was damaged while two stubborn sides not only fought to the brink, but often fought dirty and ugly along the way.

Everyone lost because games were not played, goals were not scored and money was not made -- not just by the owners and the players, but by regular people who depend on the NHL and help make the hockey culture what it is. Everyone lost because, yeah, they finally will show up, but the bottom line is, they will show up late. Again.

[Puck Daddy: Players, owners reach tentative deal after 16-hour talks]

No one deserves a bouquet for working through the night and getting this done, except the mediator, Scot Beckenbaugh, who was able to ease tensions while shuttling between the sides Friday, find common ground and get them back together face-to-face Saturday. This should have been done long ago -- if not in September, then in October, when the NHL made a pitch to save an 82-game season, or December, when the players starting negotiating on the owners' framework. Both sides screwed up at different points. No excuses.

But the owners can say they won because they used their leverage to mine the crown jewels of this negotiation: more money and a more restrictive system. The players used to make 57 percent of hockey-related revenue; they will now make 50 percent after transition payments, saving the owners billions in future dollars. The players' contract lengths used to be unlimited, and GMs used loopholes to front load and back dive and circumvent the cap. Now the players' contract lengths are limited, and salary variance rules are tighter.

Will that fix the league's underlying issues? We'll see. Even with the players' share lowered, the system more restrictive and revenue sharing increased, this will still be a business that generates most of its revenue locally and ties its salary range to league revenues -- the rich inflating the salary cap and floor, the poor struggling to keep up. But the owners targeted the 50-50 split of HRR from the beginning. This is fairly close to what they wanted.

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Donald Fehr and the NHLPA became a real union again. (Reuters)

The players can say they won because they mitigated their losses, and given their position, that was their goal all along. They acknowledged from the beginning their share would be reduced. They knew they were going to have to settle for a 50-50 split of HRR, costing them billions in future dollars. But while they also gave up half a season of salary in this fight, they gained $300 million in transition payments. They fought off most of the league's attacks on contracting rights -- keeping entry-level rules, arbitration rights and free agency eligibility the same; not settling for the five-year contract length limit the owners wanted. They gained a defined-benefit pension.

They also became a real union again. In the aftermath of the 2004-05 lockout, the PA went through a period of infighting. It went through multiple executive directors. But Fehr reorganized and reenergized the union, and for all the criticism he received -- some deserved, some not -- he helped the players stand up for themselves again. The league repeatedly set deadlines, walked out and made "best" offers, but Fehr and the players didn't blink, held together and got better offers.

Will all this be enough to stop the next lockout? How well will the fans and sponsors come back when the puck drops? It's too early to say. But at least there will be labor peace for the next eight years, maybe the next decade, and this business that relies on the passion of its hardcore customers -- maybe too much, taking them for granted -- can finally begin the healing process.

The sun is up. It's a new day. Time to shut up and play.

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