Finally, after 113 days of labor strife and bickering amongst millionaires, the NHL will have a season in 2013, albeit an abbreviated one, after the sides agreed on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement Sunday morning.
There will be no repeat of 2004-05 when the NHL became the only North American professional sports league to cancel a season because of a labor dispute.
After a marathon session in New York, league commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr announced the deal around 5 a.m. Eastern.
"We have to dot a lof of the I's and cross a lot of T's," Bettman told reporters in New York. "There is still a lot of work to be done, but the basic framework has been agreed upon."
While the scheduling details haven't been ironed out, the Florida Panthers are expected to begin a seven-day training camp next week at Saveology.com Iceplex in Coral Springs before starting a reduced 48- to 50-game season in about two weeks.
Panthers co-captain Tomas Kopecky said that once the new CBA is in place, the acrimony and anger from fans and players will be replaced by the love for their sport.
"I'm super-excited for myself, the team and especially the fans down here,'' Kopecky said Sunday morning. "I'm sure they missed hockey as much as the players and hopefully the ratification of the documents won't take long.
"It's up to us to get the fans back. We earned the respect of the fans last year by winning hockey games and it's basically what we need to do. Some fans will stay mad but once we start winning games we saw how we sold out the building in the playoffs. It's our jobs as players, management, trainers to have everything click again.
"The short season will make us treat every game like a playoff game like we did battling for a playoff spot in the last two months of the season. Every point is going to count.''
Panthers player's representative Mike Weaver believes training camp won't open until Monday, Jan. 14, because many players are still in Europe. He also says the lockout isn't over until every word of the agreement is double-checked by lawyers from both sides.
"It's good news, but at the same time the deal's not done until the documents are signed,'' Weaver said. "There have been instances where the documents weren't correct and certain things were slid in there.''
Weaver said the league agreed to keep the salary cap at $64.3 million.
Kopecky believes that a week of training camp will be enough to get ready for the grueling, condensed season.
"That's why we've been skating here and working out since September, trying to keep in shape in case it starts so you're ready to go,'' he said. "The worst part of this is you don't have the drive to work out, the drive to go on the ice. Is it worth it? Is there going to be a season? But once you know that there is going to be a season all of a sudden everything changes and you get it back.''
Kopecky said several teammates are back in South Florida and others like defenseman Brian Campbell are flying in on Monday.
The Panthers, coming off their first-ever Southeast Division title and first playoff berth in 12 years, hope to unfurl their championship banner and drop the puck at newly named BB&T Center possibly on Jan. 19.
It's expected to be against their last opponent, the Stanley Cup finalist New Jersey Devils, led by former Panthers coach Pete DeBoer, who eliminated Florida in seven grueling games in the first round of the playoffs.
"I want to get back on the ice,'' Weaver said, the team player's representative, said earlier this week after an informal practice. "I want to get our fans back in the building and get people working again at the rink.''
Similar to the 1994-95 season when the lockout lasted three months and 10 days, teams will only play against teams in their own conferences.
So the Panthers won't play the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings or perennial Western Conference contenders such as the Detroit Red Wings or Chicago Blackhawks. Instead, they'll focus on Eastern Conference rivals like the Devils, Flyers, Bruins, Rangers and Capitals.
Several Panthers such as Weaver, Ed Jovanovski, Stephen Weiss, Kopecky, Jose Theodore and newcomer Peter Mueller have been holding skates three days a week at Glacier Ice and Snow Arena in Lighthouse Point.
Others, such as Dmitry Kulikov, returned to their homelands in Europe to play internationally, however Sean Bergenheim and Marcel Goc returned early to nurse injuries.
Young defenseman Erik Gudbranson, who sustained a serious shoulder injury while wakeboarding in August, used the time off to heal and a source told the Sun Sentinel he has been cleared for contact.
Forward Kris Versteeg also used the lockout to rehabilitate from offseason hip surgery. He returned home to Lethbridge, Alberta to serve as an assistant coach at the University of Lethbridge, while also working out with the players.
"I'm pumped,'' Versteeg tweeted Sunday morning. He will arrived in South
Florida on Tuesday.
When he wasn't winning fishing tournaments or attending his children's hockey games and scouting Panthers prospects in San Antonio, coach Kevin Dineen and his staff have been meeting regularly at their offices in the training facility to discuss the most efficient manner in which to conduct an accelerated training camp.
Despite the settlement, Weaver said he will never understand why the owners took such a hard stance against the players when league revenues were at a record-high last year.
"I think we as a product on the ice, we build the game,'' Weaver said. "If we play good the game gets better and more people watch it. I just find that now the NHL doesn't think that.''