NHL, players agree on hockey deal

calexander@newsobserver.comJanuary 6, 2013 

— At long last, it’s time to play hockey again.

The National Hockey League, ending what seemed to be an interminable nightmare, will soon be dropping the puck and starting the season. The Carolina Hurricanes will be back on the ice, trying to win games and reach the Stanley Cup playoffs, trying to win back their fans.

The NHL and NHL Players Association announced early Sunday that they had approved the framework on a new collective bargaining agreement that would end the players lockout and finally start the regular season. The two sides met for 16 hours in New York, aided by federal mediator Scot L. Beckenbaugh, before agreeing in principle on a CBA just before 5 a.m. Sunday.

Canes fans got a nice taste of hockey Sunday at PNC Arena. The Charlotte Checkers, Carolina’s American Hockey League affiliate, faced the Norfolk Admirals, and the excitement in the building was palpable as the Checkers won 3-1.

“This could not have worked out any better, could it?” Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said, looking out at the crowd of 10,256. “What a perfect way to get things started.”

While no details of the CBA have been released, it’s thought to be a 10-year deal that has an opt-out by either the league or union after eight years. The players and league are expected to divide annual hockey-related revenue 50-50 – the players received 57 percent, or about $1.88 billion, last season.

The NHL training camps begin this week, and a 50- or 48-game regular season would start a week later, possibly Jan. 19. The teams are awaiting schedules from the league.

“We will have a number of challenges we don’t normally have,” Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said Sunday, talking in general terms about the agreement. “We have a challenge, publicly, with our fans, who are such a huge part of our game. We know it has been a frustrating time for them. It has been a frustrating (time) for our sport.

“It has been a frustrating time for everybody – for the fans, for the workers, for the players, for everyone who has been affected. We will need to put this behind us even as we recognize this has affected so many people, and try to move forward in a positive manner.”

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, so often at odds during the labor dispute, joined each other in announcing the CBA agreement Sunday morning.

“The details ... need to be put to paper,” Bettman told reporters in New York. “We have to dot a lot of i’s and cross a lot of t’s. There is still a lot of work to be done, but the basic framework has been agreed upon. We have to go through a ratification process and the board of governors has to approve it from the league side and, obviously, the players have to approve it as well.”

Season was at risk

The players have been locked out since 11:59 p.m. Sept. 15, when the previous CBA expired. The league canceled games through Jan. 14, including the popular Winter Classic game on New Year’s Day, and the entire season appeared at risk.

Bettman canceled the 2004-2005 season during the last NHL labor dispute.

“There have been moments I thought it was canceled, then moments where I thought we were going to start in a week,” Hurricanes team captain Eric Staal said Sunday. “I’m just glad at this point we can just kind of forget about it, put it behind us and look forward to playing.”

Staal and the Canes have not been in the Stanley Cup playoffs since 2009, when Carolina reached the Eastern Conference finals. But Carolina acquired center Jordan Staal, one of Eric Staal’s three NHL-playing brothers, in a June trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins. It signed free-agent forward Alexander Semin, the former Washington Capitals scoring star. The Canes also brought back veteran defenseman Joe Corvo.

The Canes will go into the season without gritty forward Tuomo Ruutu, who is out through at least April following hip surgery. But Rutherford said he expects all other Canes players to report, including goalie Brian Boucher, who underwent shoulder surgery in the summer.

Once the season begins, it could be a mad dash to the finish line for all teams. It should create some intense hockey, but a compressed schedule could take a big physical toll on the players.

“Conditioning is a big challenge, making sure everybody is ready to go,” Muller said. “But the big thing is putting everything behind us. Attitude is going to be big. Making sure we’re focused on one thing, what this season is all about.”

Winning back trust

Some of the Canes players went overseas to play in pro leagues – Jussi Jokinen and Jamie McBain to Finland, Jiri Tlusty to the Czech Republic, Anthony Stewart to England and Andreas Nodl to Austria. Semin has played in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.

Defenseman Justin Faulk was assigned to the Checkers and is game-ready. And the Canes could turn to the AHL team for other players, especially early in the season.

Eric Staal said he hoped the team and players can quickly win back the trust and support of the fans once the season begins.

“No question our fans are why we play and the reason we get to do what we do for a living,” he said. “We’ll do the best we can to entertain them and hopefully there won’t be as hard a feelings as some might feel right now when we get back playing.”

That should be soon. Canes forward Patrick Dwyer may have succinctly summed everything up with his Sunday tweet: “I just want to sing from a mountaintop!”

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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