BY GEORGE RICHARDS
The NHL lockout is technically still ongoing.
It will not be for long.
The NHL and its players' association came to an agreement early Sunday morning to end a lockout that is in its fifth month and has lasted over 100 days.
The two sides held a marathon negotiating session that started on Saturday afternoon and ended 16 hours later when a deal was finally reached -- one that salvages at least the '13 part of the 2012-13 season.
An abbreviated schedule of between 52-48 games could be announced Monday.
"Don Fehr and I are here to tell you that we have reached an agreement on the framework of a new collective bargaining agreement,'' NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said at Sunday's 6 a.m. press conference held in New York.
"We have to dot a lot of I's and cross a lot of T's. There is still a lot of work to be done, but the basic framework has been agreed upon. .-.-. We have a lot of work still to do, but it's good to be at this point.''
Both Bettman and Fehr -- the NHLPA's executive director -- looked exhausted after their lengthy negotiating session which was spurred on by work done Friday by federal mediator Scot Beckenbaugh.
A veteran negotiator who dealt with the NHL during the 2004-05 lockout as well as labor strife in the NFL and NBA, Beckenbaugh is being credited by players and NHL management for sticking with it and keeping negotiating going. Beckenbaugh shuttled between meetings with the two sides all day Friday and brought them closer to a deal.
The biggest terms of the deal include a pro-rated $70.2 million salary cap this season as players and owners work toward a 50-50 split in league revenues.
The cap drops to $64.3 million next season -- although teams are allowed to buy out two contracts of their choosing following this season and after the 2014-15 campaign.
Costs of those contracts, at two-thirds their worth, will come out of the players' share of revenue but will not count against the team's salary cap. Teams are also prohibited from locking up players to contracts longer than eight years and can't grossly frontload contracts as they could under the old CBA.
There will also be an increase in revenue sharing -- something that benefits the Panthers.
"We'll get back to business as usual just as fast as we can,'' Fehr said. "Hopefully within a very few days the fans can get back to watching people who are skating not us [Bettman]."
Both the NHL and NHLPA are finalizing the new collective bargaining agreement with the league's Board of Governors expected to vote on what was agreed upon Tuesday or Wednesday. The players are expected to hold an electronic vote.
Once the new CBA is ratified, the lockout will end and the business of playing hockey will begin anew.
The Panthers will raise their first Southeast Division championship banner at the home opener against a to-be-determined opponent.
Florida has a four-game homestand already scheduled from Jan. 15-21 -- meaning the BB&T Center is available - allowing the Panthers to open the season at home. Whether they will or not remains to be seen.
The 2012-13 season is expected to begin by Jan. 19; Teams will only play teams within their conference this season to cut down on travel.
The 1994-95 season, Florida's second, was shortened by labor strife as well. The NHL held a 48 game schedule that season. The 2004-05 season was wiped out because of a lockout.
"I'm excited, but there is still a lot of work to do and make sure everything is right,'' Panthers' player rep Mike Weaver said. "We're ready to get back to playing. We have been ready, actually.''
With a shortened season, teams are going to be pressured to get off to a good start.
About 10 members of the Panthers -- as well as former Panthers like Tomas Vokoun, Marco Sturm and Radek Dvorak -- have been practicing in Pompano Beach during the lockout.
Those informal workouts continue at Glacier Ice Arena on Monday with the players likely heading back to the Panthers' facility in Coral Springs on Tuesday.
Players who have been elsewhere in North America -- such as Brian Campbell (Chicago), Scott Clemmensen (Iowa), Kris Versteeg (Alberta), Erik Gudbranson (Ottawa) and Scottie Upshall (Los Angeles) -- will start returning by Monday. Others playing in Europe will take a little longer although most should be back by the weekend.
The Panthers plan to open training camp with physicals as early as Friday with workouts starting Saturday. Training camp is expected to last a week with no preseason games scheduled.
"I'm excited to be back. It's going to be good,'' said Campbell, who flies into Fort Lauderdale on Monday.
"You realize how much you miss the guys, how much you miss being part of a team. We spent the day texting each other on Sunday. We can't wait. But this thing is going to be quick. I'm glad we're a team that knows each other unlike last year. We're going to be fine.''