Steven Stamkos always believed the NHL season would be saved.
"A gut feeling," he kept saying, even during times when talks between the league and players association on a collective bargaining agreement seemed at the breaking point.
On Sunday, the 113th day of the league's lockout of the players, the Lightning's star center was proved right. A 16-hour negotiating session at a New York hotel forged a tentative agreement announced about 5 a.m.
"For me, I was just trying to stay optimistic the whole time," Stamkos said. "Everyone is excited. I'm excited to get back to Tampa and be with the guys and get things rolling."
"We're finally where we want to be, on the ice," Lightning wing Marty St. Louis said.
They're not quite there yet.
The 10-year agreement — the primary pillar reduces the players' share of each season's hockey-related revenue collected by the league to 50 percent from last season's 57 percent — still must be ratified by the league's 30 club owners and its approximately 740 players.
That should happen Tuesday or Wednesday. Training camps, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported, could open Saturday or as late as Monday. It was unclear whether the league would play a 50-game schedule beginning Jan. 15 or a 48-game schedule beginning Jan. 19.
The regular season, the Lightning's 20th, likely will run through early May. The Stanley Cup playoffs should wrap up by the end of June.
For St. Louis, 37, the agreement came with a sense of satisfaction. As he did during the 2004-05 lockout, the Laval, Quebec, native, part of a small group of players that attended the final week of negotiations, had a key hand in forging the agreement.
"Everything was thought through. There was no rushing into something," said St. Louis, who shuttled by train or car service between New York and his home in Greenwich, Conn. "It was amazing to have that experience and be part of something of that magnitude."
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St. Louis, the most valuable player of the 2003-04 regular season, said he did not play a larger role than any other player in the union's internal discussions.
But former Lightning player Mathieu Darche, also part of the negotiations, said St. Louis's stature as a player and his moderate, thoughtful approach played a crucial role.
"Just the respect that Marty has, if he speaks, everyone will listen," Darche said. "He understood the topics very well, and he understood the ramifications about everything we did."
"Everybody would speak," St. Louis said. "There were moments like, 'What's our next move? What do we do?' Those are the things we discussed. We even got on the phone and talked to other people."
At times it was emotional, such as when the union accused the league of surreptitiously changing proposed language concerning how teams would be punished if found hiding hockey-related revenue.
The league said the changes were flagged and union lawyers simply missed them. Either way, it took federal mediator Scot Beckenbaugh 12 hours of shuttling between the distrusting camps Friday to bring them together for the final marathon negotiating session that began about noon Saturday.
"Definitely a roller coaster," St. Louis said. "It plays with your emotions. It's a draining process, no doubt."
St. Louis wasn't in the room when the agreement was reached. With a Sunday flight to Tampa and things to do at home, he left New York at 6 p.m. Saturday, though he stayed in contact with the negotiations by phone. His phone, buzzing with an email, woke him at 5 a.m. Sunday with the news.
"Nobody was trying to be a hero in there," St. Louis said. "All the decisions that were made were based on what the union felt, not just the way I felt, but collectively how we felt. I was just part of the process."
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Since the league-initiated lockout began Sept. 15, a handful of Lightning players have skated three times a week at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon. With training camp coming, right wing B.J. Crombeen, a member of the union negotiating committee, said the pace of today's workout "might be a little step quicker."
Certainly the mood will be lighter.
"I'm very excited," Stamkos said. "I think we have a playoff team, and I'm hoping we can start the year on the right foot and get off to a great start that our whole city and our fans deserve."
"Very excited to get them back on the ice," general manager Steve Yzerman wrote in a text message.
There will be challenges, namely a short training camp and likely no preseason games heading into a compressed schedule.
"Like doing a hundred-yard sprint without warming up," St. Louis said.
Even so, conditioning should not be a major concern.
Defensemen Brendan Mikkelson and Victor Hedman, forwards Dana Tyrell and Adam Hall, and goaltender Anders Lindback played in Europe during the lockout. Center Nate Thompson played for the East Coast Hockey League's Alaska Aces. Nine players were regulars in Brandon.
"There's no doubt there's going to be some cobwebs that have to be dusted," St. Louis said. "But everybody is in the same boat, and I'm sure two weeks into the season, everything will be back to normal."
And for at least eight years — after which there is an option for owners or players to reopen the collective bargaining agreement — there will be labor peace.
"It was a process, probably a lot longer than everybody thought," Lightning captain Vinny Lecavalier said. "I know it's hard, but you have to turn the page and look forward. We want to put on a good show in Tampa, and we want to get back to the playoffs, and that's going to be great excitement for everybody."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]