NEW YORK, N.Y. - Hockey fans will have to be patient for a little while longer.
The timeline for the start of a shortened NHL season remained up in the air one day after the league and NHL Players' Association shook hands on a tentative deal to end the lockout. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Canadian Press on Monday morning that hope for a 50-game schedule had already faded as the sides continued to finalize the memorandum of understanding their constituents will each vote on later in the week.
As a result, the league is likely to return with a 48-game season starting Jan. 19, assuming there are no major hiccups before then.
"It depends on ratification timeline for PA, but it's looking more and more like 48 games is going to be the only option," Daly said in an email.
While there was no sense the deal was in peril, it was clearly taking the parties time to get everything down in writing. As of Monday night, they had yet to complete a memorandum of understanding which was likely to run over a couple hundred pages when completed.
That will have to happen before the league's Board of Governors convene on Wednesday afternoon to hold a ratification vote. The union expected a ballot of 740 players to take until the weekend to carry out. While it had yet to officially schedule a window for an electronic vote, the NHLPA was contemplating one that would end at some point on Saturday.
Both sides need to get majority support to adopt the tentative deal they reached early Sunday morning following a marathon 16-hour negotiating session. Even after announcing the tentative agreement around 6 a.m., they went right back to work on the language of the new pension plan, which ended up being one of the final hurdles for them to cross in negotiations.
A 50-game schedule held appeal for both sides, but the league figured it needed to start to start the season in the middle of next week to avoid seeing the Stanley Cup awarded in July. That simply won't be able to happen.
"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," Los Angeles Kings forward Kevin Westgarth told The Associated Press on Monday. "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."
The announcement of a tentative deal sent a number of players scrambling for a flight back to North America. More than 200 locked-out NHLers signed on with a European team in recent months and many remained there until the work stoppage ended.
Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin already sorted out his trip back to North America.
"Great to be home in DC! Thank you Dynamo!! It was gr8 time......good luck to boys for gagarin cup!!!," he posted on his Twitter account.
There was a groundswell of enthusiasm at informal skating sessions across the continent, which suddenly took on more urgency and saw players trade in their NHLPA-issued sweaters for those bearing team logos. After months of frustration during the lockout, players were looking at a 12-day window to get ready for a condensed schedule.
"It's the same kind of mindset as a full season but it's going to be a little more desperate," Maple Leafs forward Clarke MacArthur said in Toronto. "You've got to be good right off the bat."
The NHL played a 48-game season following the 1994-95 lockout and that allowed for a balanced intraconference schedule for what was then a 26-team league.
It's going to be a little more complicated this time around. The NHL is planning to have teams play three games against the 10 opponents within the same conference but outside their division. They will then have an unbalanced schedule against division rivals, with five games against two teams and four against the two others, according to a source.
Steve Hatze Petros, the NHL's vice-president of scheduling, has been busy tinkering with different possibilities throughout the lockout and was said to have essentially completed the one that is likely to be used this season. However, it wasn't expected to be released publicly until after owners ratified the new CBA.
On Sunday, the league circulated a memo to teams telling them to be ready to play by Jan. 19—a start date that has long been targeted.
The shortened schedule will force a number of changes to the NHL calendar. The league has proposed an April 5 trade deadline and July 5 opening to free agency, according to sources, but the sides have yet to agree on that.
The entry draft scheduled for June 28-29 at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., might also need to be pushed back.
Even though the ink had yet to run dry on the new CBA, several teams started trying to make amends for the sport's fourth work stoppage in 20 years. The Pittsburgh Penguins issued a statement from owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle in which they offered an apology to fans.
"There is nothing we can say to explain or excuse what has happened over the past four months," it read.