After 300 days, NHL and players announce agreement
By Ira Podell, The Associated Press
NEW YORK — The NHL and the players' association reached an agreement in principle Wednesday on a six-year labor deal, ending a lockout that wiped out last season.
The NHL hopes that empty seats will be a thing of the past after announcing an agreement in principle on a new labor deal.
By Scott Audette, AP
The sides met for 24 hours starting Tuesday afternoon to hammer out the collective bargaining agreement that will return the NHL to the ice on time in the fall. In February, commissioner Gary Bettman canceled the season, making the NHL the first North American sports league to lose a year because of a labor dispute.
"It's a new day," Philadelphia Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock told The Associated Press. "It's pretty exciting."
Both sides still need to ratify the deal, a pact that is expected to contain a salary cap — something players' union executive director Bob Goodenow never wanted. That process is expected to be completed next week, the league and the union said in a joint news release.
"To be totally honest, I really don't care what the deal is anymore. All I care about is getting the game back on the ice," Flyers star Jeremy Roenick said in a telephone interview during a celebrity golf event in Nevada.
"I think the deal is not great for the players. It is definitely an owner-friendly deal. For the last 10 years, the players have made a lot of money and now we are in a position where everybody is going to make money," he said. "Unfortunately, it had to take a whole year to get to a point where we could have been last year."
While the NHL seems to have gotten what it wanted, there is no way to measure the damage done to a sport that already was the least popular of the four major leagues in the United States.
"That's going to be our next big step — winning back the fans," said Nashville Predators forward Jim McKenzie, a 15-year NHL veteran. "We'll have our work cut out for us."
If all goes according to plan, a scaled-down draft is expected to be held later this month and training camps will open from Vancouver to Miami in September. Real NHL games will be back on the schedule come October.
"It'll be a great thing to get the game back up," Columbus Blue Jackets coach Gerard Gallant said.
Selling the sport might take a while longer.
During the lockout, disgruntled Buffalo fan Doug Sitler sold more than 15,000 magnetic car ribbons that read: "I need my hockey fix(ed)."
"I think it's going to take a little bit of time for people to get back in the swing of things," he said. "But sports fans are pretty fickle. They have short memories. They really do."
It took all night and then some for the final round of negotiations to produce an agreement.
The sides met for 10 straight days in New York, and it became clear Wednesday morning — the 301st day of the lockout — that they weren't going to leave the room without an agreement in hand.
The expected salary cap will likely have a ceiling approaching $40 million and a minimum somewhere between $20 million and $25 million.
Player salaries will not exceed 54% of league-wide revenues.
Bettman warned in February that the offers the union passed up were better than any it would see once a year of hockey was lost.
Just days before the season was wiped out, the players' association said for the first time it would accept a salary cap if the league dropped its desire to link player costs to revenues.
That started a wild week that included the cancellation of the season on Feb. 16 and a false hope three days later that it would be saved. Even Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux — superstars turned executives — couldn't resurrect it during an emergency bargaining session in New York.
Negotiations resumed in mid-March.
Bettman promised "cost certainty" in the form of a hard salary cap to the owners and he has gotten it.
The landscape of the NHL will be quite different than it was back in June 2004 when the Tampa Bay Lightning skated off with the Stanley Cup in the league's last game before the lockout. For the first time since a flu epidemic in 1919, there was no Stanley Cup champion in 2005.
Now when the league relaunches in the fall, it will do so with a brand new salary structure that keeps high-spending teams such as Toronto, Philadelphia and the New York Rangers in line.
The first order of business after the deal is ratified will be to get a majority of the players signed. The belief is that last season's contracts will be wiped from the books, leaving many players without deals.
Those who are still under contract will have their salaries reduced by 24%, a concept first proposed by the union last December. Some expensive players will also be on the market as teams pare payrolls to get down to the cap.
There will also be several rules changes that could run the gamut from the size of goaltender equipment to the installation of a shootout to eliminate tie games.
"Our focus right now, from the coaches standpoint, is we're waiting to see what our roster is going to look like and what the playing rules are going to look like," Hitchcock said in a phone interview.
The draft was supposed to be held last month in Ottawa, but the Canadian capital might get to host the event soon.
Canadian phenom Sidney Crosby is the consensus choice to be the No. 1 pick. Where he goes will be determined by a draft lottery that will give each team an opportunity to snag him.
He will certainly be part of the NHL's campaign to win back fans that were disenchanted by the lockout.
The deal finally came down during sport's biggest lull of the year — the baseball All-Star break.
The NHL probably won't hold such an event until 2007 as next year's All-Star game is expected to be replaced by an Olympic break, allowing for players to represent their countries in Torino, Italy.
Contributing: Scott Sonner, Dan Gelston, John Wawrow and Teresa Walker, The Associated Pres
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