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League owners approve new labor deal

By Steve Keating

(Reuters) - The National Hockey League's (NHL) board of governors ratified the tentative labor deal on Wednesday, followed by Commissioner Gary Bettman's apology for dragging fans and sponsors through a four-month lockout.

Requiring a simple majority to pass, the 30 league owners voted unanimously to approve the 10-year deal that was agreed to early on Sunday after a marathon 16-hour bargaining session.

The NHL Players' Association is expected to vote on the collective bargaining agreement on Friday and Saturday.

If the players approve the deal it will remove the final obstacle standing in the way of what is expected to be a 48-game regular season that would begin January 19.

The NHL said it will announce its schedule immediately after the agreement has been ratified by both parties.

After a rancorous 113-day lockout that cost both sides billions of dollars, players and owners have now turned their attention to mending fences with disgruntled fans and putting the focus back onto the ice.

"To the players, who were very clear they wanted to be on the ice and not negotiating labor contracts, to our partners who support the league financially and personally and most importantly to our fans that love and have missed NHL hockey, I am sorry," Bettman told reporters following the vote at a Manhattan hotel.

"I know an explanation or an apology will not erase the hard feelings that have built up of past few months but I owe you an apology nonetheless.

"We have a lot of work to do.

"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."

With training camps set to open on Sunday, Bettman would not elaborate on what plans the NHL has to make up with fans but said the league would take tangible steps and will be offering more than simple apologies.

"I think it's time to turn the page and look forward as quickly as possible," said Bettman. "It is in the process of being worked on and will be announced at the appropriate time.

"There will be outreach campaigns and efforts that will be made clear as we get closer to dropping the puck."

Having presided over three work stoppages during his time as commissioner, speculation swirled during the final days of the most recent lockout that Bettman had lost the confidence of owners and would soon be looking for new job.

But Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs offered Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly a vote of confidence on Wednesday praising the NHL's two chief negotiators for their work.

Bettman also laughed off talk of his demise, saying he was not going anywhere.

"It's nothing more than unfounded speculation," said Bettman who will mark his 29th anniversary in charge of the NHL in February. "I am looking forward to continuing to grow this game on and off the ice as we have over the last 20 years.

"I think the opportunities are great and I'm excited to be part of them."

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Frank Pingue)

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