NEW YORK - The NHL and the players' association reached a tentative agreement early Sunday to end a nearly four-month-old lockout that threatened to wipe out what was left of an already abbreviated season.
A marathon negotiating session that lasted more than 16 hours, stretching from Saturday afternoon until just before dawn Sunday, produced a 10-year deal.
"We've got to dot a lot of Is and cross a lot of Ts," Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "There's still a lot of work to be done."
The collective bargaining agreement still must be ratified by a majority of the league's 30 owners and the union's membership of approximately 740 players.
Under the negotiated CBA, free-agent contracts will have a maximum length of seven years, but clubs can go to eight years to re-sign their own players. Each side can opt out of the deal after eight years.
The pension plan was "the centerpiece of the deal for the players," said Winnipeg Jets defenseman Ron Hainsey, who took part in negotiations throughout the process.
The actual language of the pension plan still has to be written, but Hainsey said there is nothing substantial that still needs to be fixed.
The players' share of hockey-related income, that reached a record $3.3 billion last season, will drop from 57 percent to a 50-50 split. The salary cap for the upcoming season will be $70.2 million and will then drop to $64.3 million in the 2013-14 season. All clubs will have to have a minimum payroll of $44 million.
After the sides stayed mostly apart for two days, following late-night talks that turned sour, federal mediator Scot Beckenbaugh worked virtually around the clock to get everyone back to the bargaining table.
This time it worked - on the 113th day of the work stoppage.
George Cohen, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service director, called the deal "the successful culmination of a long and difficult road."
"Of course, the agreement will pave the way for the professional players to return to the ice and for the owners to resume their business operations," he said in a statement. "But the good news extends beyond the parties directly involved; fans throughout North America will have the opportunity to return to a favorite pasttime and thousands of working men and women and small businesses will no longer be deprived of their livelihoods."
Time was clearly a factor, with the sides facing a deadline of Thursday or Friday to reach a deal that would allow for a 48-game season to start a week later. Bettman had said the league could not allow a season of fewer than 48 games per team.
All games through Jan. 14, along with the All-Star game, have been canceled, claiming more than 50 percent of the original schedule.
All schedule issues, including the length of the season and what the look of the schedule, still need to be worked out.
Without an agreement, the NHL faced the embarrassment of losing two seasons due to a labor dispute, something that has never happened in another North American sports league. The 2004-05 season was wiped out while the sides negotiated hockey's first salary cap.