Gary Bettman speaks at a press conference announcing the start of the NHL… (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images )
Commissioner Gary Bettman apologized to hockey-deprived fans and those who play and financially support the game after announcing unanimous approval from the NHL's Board of Governors on Wednesday for the tentative labor deal the league had reached with the players' association early Sunday.
"I'm sorry. I know that an explanation or an apology will not erase the hard feelings that have built up over the past few months, but I owe you an apology nonetheless," he said during a news conference in New York.
"In the end, neither side got everything it wanted and everyone lost in the short term. But the NHL gained a long-term agreement that's good for players and good for teams and should guarantee the future success of NHL hockey for years to come."
The next step will be for the NHL Players' Assn. to ratify the 10-year agreement, which contains a mutual opt-out clause that kicks in after eight years. Players are scheduled to begin voting electronically Friday and complete that process Saturday. If they approve, as is expected, the NHL will officially lift the lockout and clear the way for training camps to open Sunday.
As soon as the agreement is ratified and signed by both sides, the league will "instantaneously" release the schedule, Bettman said. A Jan. 19 start remains the target, highlighted by the Kings' raising their Stanley Cup banner and presenting championship rings to players and staffers before they face the Chicago Blackhawks in a game set to start at noon at Staples Center. The Ducks will open the same day on the road in Vancouver.
NHL teams will play a 48-game schedule against opponents within their respective conferences, as was the case after the 1994-95 labor dispute. Another dispute wiped out the entire 2004-05 season.
The new collective bargaining agreement does not address realignment or players' participation in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Bettman said those issues "are not bargaining chips," and will be negotiated later by the league and NHLPA.
He also said the league will initiate "outreaches, campaigns and efforts" to woo back fans who were alienated by the latest labor strife.
"I read the letters, I followed the tweets, I read the blogs. We have a lot of work to do," he said. "The National Hockey League has a responsibility to earn back your trust and support, whether you watch one game or every game, and that effort begins today."