* Players and owners to vote on new CBA
* Will fans forgive now big concern (Adds detail, reaction)
Jan 6 (Reuters) - The National Hockey League and locked out players reached a tentative agreement to end a bitter labour dispute on Sunday and salvage a season that appeared to be slipping away.
The deal was announced jointly by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players Association (NHLPA) Executive Director Donald Fehr after a marathon 16-hour negotiation session that began on Saturday at the league's Manhattan headquarters and ended in the early hours of Sunday morning.
NHL owners and the players must now ratify the new deal but no details were given on a start date to the new season or the number of games to be played.
"Don Fehr and I are here to tell you that we have reached an agreement on the framework of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the details of which need to be put to paper," Bettman told reporters. "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 to go through a ratification process and the Board of Governors has to approve it from the League side and, obviously, the players have to approve it as well," he added saying details on the new season could be made available later on Sunday.
With half of the 2012-13 regular season already lost to the dispute, the NHL had set a Jan. 11 deadline for a new deal and is expected to stage a 48-to-50 game campaign.
The lockout, which the league has said is costing it about $18-$20 million a day, began in mid-September when the previous collective bargaining agreement expired with both sides at odds over how to split the NHL's $3.3 billion in revenue.
With talks unraveling and league on the verge of canceling the entire season, the 113-day lockout ended with the help of a U.S. federal mediator who enticed the two parties back to the bargaining table for a final push to make a deal.
"On behalf of the FMCS, I want to extend our congratulations to both parties for their important accomplishment," said Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service Director George H. Cohen in a statement. "The negotiated agreement represents the successful culmination of a long and difficult road in which the parties ultimately were able to reach mutually acceptable solutions to a wide variety of contentious subjects of bargaining.
"Of course, the agreement will pave the way for the professional players to return to the ice and for the owners to resume their business operations.
"But the good news extends beyond the parties directly involved; fans throughout North America will have the opportunity to return to a favorite pastime and thousands of working men and women and small businesses will no longer be deprived of their livelihoods."
With news of a tentative agreement in place, players who chose to ride out the dispute playing in European leagues must immediately join their NHL clubs for an abbreviated training camp.
There is also much work ahead for teams, who must quickly digest the new CBA and the rules they will operate under while filling out rosters.
The return of the NHL created an instant buzz across hockey mad Canada, with even Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper greeting the news with relief.
"Glad to see a deal between the #NHL players and the league. Great new for hockey fans and communities across Canada." tweeted the Canadian Prime Minister.
The big concern now, however, will be seeing how frustrated fans and sponsors react to the fourth work stoppage in 20 years.
The dispute, which follows a lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-05 campaign, is the second longest by the NHL and players and it is expected that many weary and angry fans will be slow to return to the arenas.
New Jersey Devils netminder Martin Brodeur, who has endured three work stoppages during his career, said players are prepared to put on a good show.
"I think for the fans it is going to be pretty exciting," said Brodeur. "The guys are going to be eager to get back on the ice.
"Coaches know you can't afford to lose many games because a streak of three or four games winning or losing is going to decide where you are going to end up in the playoffs or not make the playoffs.
"So it's going to be exciting by hard for the players, with a game probably every two days it's going to be like three months of playoff hockey." (Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by John Mehaffey)