The NHL appears headed toward a 48-game season for the second time in two decades.
“I think 48 is most likely at this point, unless the players can expedite their ratification process,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly wrote in an email Monday to The Associated Press.
The NHL shortened its 82-game slate to 48 games during the 1994-95 season after a 103-day lockout. A 301-day lockout in 2004-05 made the NHL the first major North American professional sports league to lose an entire season.
When the framework of a new collective bargaining agreement was agreed to Sunday morning — after 16 hours of negotiations — there was some talk of having a 50-game season start later this month.
The NHL and the players’ association are working on a memorandum of understanding, which could be completed soon, then voted on by team owners and players. The league has circulated a memo to teams telling them to be ready to play by Jan. 19, the date the shortened season is expected to start.
“As we prepare for the season opener, I want to apologize to all Blues fans, especially our season ticket holders, suite holders, and sponsors,” St. Louis Blues owner Tom Stillman said in a statement released by the team. “We share in your disappointment and frustration about the lockout.”
Los Angeles Kings forward Kevin Westgarth, who was a part of the union negotiating team for much of the more than 100-day lockout, expects the NHLPA to conduct a conference call to explain and answer questions about the new CBA before players vote on it online.
“Of course the league will say if the players hurry up, we can play more games, but there’s a reality to consider as well,” Westgarth said in a telephone interview Monday from Raleigh, N.C., where he skated informally with some Carolina Hurricanes. “But the first step is for the people who are good with words to get on paper what both sides agreed to.
“Then, we have to get guys — who are scattered all over the world — to understand the agreement before we can start voting.”
Some NHL players — including Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin — went overseas during the lockout. Ovechkin has been playing for his hometown Dynamo Moscow in the Kontinental Hockey League but plans to be back in the United States soon.
“Alex is returning early this week,” Ovechkin’s IMG agent, David Abrutyn, told the AP.
Players — teammates and opponents — who stayed in North America have been getting together for months to skate, conduct on-ice drills and work out on their own to stay in relatively good shape.
Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby and nearly a dozen teammates worked out at a suburban Pittsburgh ice rink Monday.
For a change, Crosby and the rest of the NHL players knew games will be played after negotiators for both sides — and an outside mediator — found a way to revive a sport desperate to regain momentum and boost its prominence.
The league and its union agreed to the framework of a 10-year labor contract, ending a bitter dispute that wiped out a large part of the hockey season for the third time in less than two decades. On the 113th day of the lockout and five days before the league’s deadline for a deal, the bleary-eyed sides held a 6 a.m. Sunday news conference to announce there would be a season after all.
The lockout could wipe out perhaps $1 billion in revenue this season because about 40 percent of the regular-season schedule won’t be played.
The NHL’s revenue of $3.3 billion last season lagged well behind the NFL ($9 billion), Major League Baseball ($7.5 billion) and the NBA ($5 billion). The new deal will lower the hockey players’ percentage from 57 to 50 after owners originally had proposed the players get 46 percent.
This was the third lockout among the major U.S. sports in a period of a little more than a year. A four-month NFL lockout ended in July 2011 with the loss of only one exhibition game, and an NBA lockout caused each team’s schedule to be cut from 82 games to 66 last season.
AP sportswriters Ira Podell and Ronald Blum in New York and Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.