- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 6, 2013

These were the words hockey fans were waiting to hear for the first 100-plus days of the NHL lockout. Commissioner Gary Bettman delivered them early Sunday morning.

Don Fehr and I are here to tell you that we have reached an agreement on the framework of a new collective bargaining agreement, the details of which need to be put to paper,” Bettman told reporters in New York City.

On Day 113, the lockout was finally over and players and fans got the chance to again think and talk about games and not negotiations.

“Hopefully within just a very few days the fans can get back to watching people who are skating, not the two of us,” Fehr said. Bettman agreed.

It’s not official yet, pending ratification by the Board of Governors and NHL Players’ Association. But it’s all but done.

“We wanted to make sure that all the wording is correct and stuff like that,” Washington Capitals player rep Jason Chimera said. “But I don’t see it derailing a process.”

It was long and grueling process that not only cost the NHL games but hurt its reputation. The new CBA is a 10-year agreement, something that brings some stability to a sport all too familiar with work stoppages.

Other details reportedly include a seven-year contract limit (eight for teams that sign their own players) and a change to the NHL draft lottery that gives all non-playoff teams a shot at the No. 1 pick. The 2013 season will include either 48 or 50 games.

Unlike the 2004-05 lockout, this time there are no drastic changes to the on-ice product. But now that it’s over there’s optimism about what the sides accomplished.

“We hope that when we all get through this and play into this new CBA and we all look back that we can somehow say that it was worth this painful time or embarrassing time, whatever you want to call it,” Philadelphia Flyers enforcer Jody Shelley said. “However you look at it, it’s something we’re not proud that we went through, but hopefully it served its purpose and everyone in hockey, everyone in the hockey world, especially the fans, can benefit from it.”

Putting the focus back on hockey is a good start. Several months of contentious negotiations deflated fans at best and drove them away at worst. Ex-Caps forward Mike Knuble said watching the theatrics from afar was “incredible.”

It’s also incredible to consider how long the lockout lasted, compared to what most expected.

“I think it kind of snuck up on everybody and really snowballed into something that nobody really could’ve predicted. I think the general camp and players thought maybe we’ll miss a month or two, they’ll sort it out, no problem,” Knuble said. “And then it just got off on the wrong foot way back in August and that first offer. It sort of snowballed from there and became pretty contentious for a long time. Ultimately when Gary put out the drop-dead date, if there was any truth to a drop-dead date, it sure lit a fire under everybody.”

Knuble had an idea things were close Saturday night when he had dinner with former teammate and current Toronto Maple Leafs center David Steckel in Columbus, Ohio, where he was in town for his 12-year-old son Cam’s game. Like many others, he woke up to a text message informing him the lockout was over.

As of late Sunday morning, Caps right wing Troy Brouwer was happy but cautious, given the twists and turns of CBA talks.

“We’ve heard that it’s done. Until it’s actually signed we obviously have to make sure that we’re not getting ahead of ourself. With the team that we have, with Don [Fehr] and all our financial and legal guys, if there is anything in these contracts that we need to be worried about, they’ll pick it up,” Brouwer said. “We’re confident that a deal will get pushed through here in a pretty quick time.”

Players could start voting anytime now. The Board of Governors is expected to put the CBA to a vote Tuesday, according to reports.

Washington owner Ted Leonsis did not wait to release a statement to fans.

“Thanks to all of you for your patience, support and understanding during this process,” said Leonsis, who was one of four owners on the NHL‘s negotiating committee.

Once the deal is official, training camps can open in preparation for either a 48- or 50-game season starting Jan. 19 or earlier.

“I think fans are still going to get a good chunk of season,” Knuble said. “I think they’re going to get a great regular season, and I think with a tightened schedule everybody is literally tied with 48 games to go, or whatever we decide. It doesn’t happen like that in the league; you have thirty teams in the mix and it’s going to make for some really good hockey games, that’s for sure.”

Players expressed joy and relief for being able to practice and play games with teammates again. Fans, even those frustrated by the lockout’s length, considered it about time the NHL was back.

“I’m excited for the guys, excited for the game, too: the people around the game, the people that work at the game in concessions and the fans, and for the fans to get some good news and just for the people who distribute the beer to the arenas, the hot dog vendors, all that stuff,” Chimera said. “It’s good for the game in general just to get going again. It’s good for hockey just to get some good news.”

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