Shortly after 5 a.m. Sunday, Washington Capitals forward Jason Chimera woke up to a text message he had been hoping to see for nearly four months. The National Hockey League owners and players’ union had finally reached a tentative deal on a new labor agreement to salvage a partial season.
Chimera celebrated with an impromptu dance and pancake party with his two young children at his Alexandria home.
“My son asked me, ‘Who unlocked the doors?’ ” Chimera, 33, said. “I didn’t know what to say. I just laughed.”
The end of the lockout came after more than 16 consecutive hours of bargaining on the 113th day. Language and legal details of the new collective bargaining agreement still need to be finalized, and then the deal must be ratified by a majority of both the union’s roughly 750 members and the league’s 30-member Board of Governors before it can become official.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done, but the basic framework of the deal has been agreed upon,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters in New York, while standing alongside Donald Fehr, the union’s executive director.
“Hopefully within a very few days the fans can get back to watching people who are skating, not the two of us,” Fehr said.
The third NHL work stoppage in Bettman’s tenure began when the owners locked out the players on Sept. 16, despite seeing league revenues rise to an all-time high of $3.3 billion the previous season. In total, 625 regular season games, including the outdoor Winter Classic, and the All-Star Game were canceled.
The NHL canceled the entire 2004-2005 season because of an owners’ lockout of players, and played a shortened 48-game schedule following a lockout in 1994-1995.
As they await the completion of the agreement, players are hastily making arrangements to return to their NHL cities and preparing to shift from lockout-inflicted boredom to midseason intensity in less than two weeks.
Once the new collective bargaining agreement is approved by both sides, the NHL will hold either a 50- or 48-game season that would begin on Jan. 15 or 19. Schedules have not yet been released, but it is believed that either option would see teams face only conference opponents.
The Capitals will face inherent challenges with a compressed schedule. Although their travel should be easier as a member of the Eastern Conference — most foes are less than a two-hour flight away — the team will be learning a new system from its third coach in just 14 months.
The Capitals will have roughly a week for training camp to learn first-time Coach Adam Oates’s style of play before jumping into a truncated season in which each game will hold heightened playoff implications.
“There’s going to be no grace period where you can struggle or stumble a little bit,” Capitals winger Troy Brouwer said. “If you go on a three-game losing streak, that could be the difference between [getting] in the playoffs and out of the playoffs.”
Forward Matt Hendricks, who was on an ice-fishing trip when he received a text message from Chimera with the news of the agreement, is confident the Capitals can make it work.
“It will be a lot of material we’ll be going over in a short period of time,” Hendricks said. “It’s going to be a bit of flying by the seat of your pants, but I’m confident the coaches will have us ready to go.”
Capitals General Manager George McPhee declined to comment on the agreement before it was finalized, as did Oates, through a team spokesman. Owner Ted Leonsis issued a statement on the team’s Web site, however, thanking fans for their “patience, support and understanding during this process.”
The deal in principle is for a 10-year collective bargaining agreement, with a mutual opt-out after eight years, in which players and owners will split hockey-related revenue 50-50. Players, who claimed 57 percent under the previous agreement, will receive $300 million in deferred payments to help ease the transition, and revenue sharing between teams will increase to $200 million annually.
Contract terms will be limited to seven years; eight if a player re-signs with the same team.
The shortened season will feature a pro-rated salary cap of $70.2 million, while the 2013-14 season salary cap will fall to $64.3 million, with the salary floor at $44 million for both seasons. To help with the adjustment to a lower salary cap next year, the league agreed to two amnesty buyouts per team that will count against the players’ share of hockey-related revenue. As things stand, the Capitals have $44.8 million committed to 12 players under contract for 2013-14, which leaves $19.5 million to sign 11 more.
Word of the resolution came at 4:45 a.m. Sunday after the two sides bargained for more than half a day under the supervision of federal mediator Scot L. Beckenbaugh, who in the previous two days prevented talks from derailing with the season in the balance.
The frequent absence of hockey’s most prestigious professional league has worn through the patience of die-hard and casual fans alike, and players understand that many of their supporters are disgruntled by the process. They just hope they can make up for it.
“Hopefully everyone comes back,” Penguins star Sidney Crosby told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “I understand people are frustrated. It’s more than understandable for people to be frustrated. I don’t blame them at all. . . . I just hope they can find it in themselves to come back and support us. Their support means an awful lot to us.”