Board of governors to meet Friday
TORONTO -- The NHL's sole obstacle to being back in business is as easy as an empty-net goal.
Players overwhelmingly supported the six-year deal in Thursday's balloting, with 464 of 532 (87 percent) voting in favor of it. Now it is all but certain the board of governors will sign off, too.
Approval by the 30 owners Friday will end the lockout, bring labor peace at last to the league that has already lost one season and turn the focus back to the ice.
"I am optimistic that we will bring this promptly to a successful conclusion so that we can go together and get this game, and the attention on this game, back where it belongs," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said.
Talk will immediately shift from debates over money and salary caps and escrow to a discussion of how good Sidney Crosby will make his new team next season.
Still widely unknown in the United States, Crosby is a 17-year-old Canadian juniors phenom that will surely be the first player taken in a makeshift NHL draft later this month in Ottawa.
In an unprecedented lottery Friday, every team has a shot to land him when a backdoor pingpong ball selection is held in New York. Teams that were weaker in recent years will have as many as three pingpong balls in the hopper.
The draft order will be announced in a televised program, and Crosby's first NHL news conference will take place an hour later.
That will be the precursor to a frenzy of free-agent player movement starting Saturday. And the flurry of signings won't really calm down until training camps open in September.
Some teams only have a handful of players under contract, and many big-name stars will soon go free. Beginning Saturday, teams will have six days to buy out players to make payrolls more cap-friendly.
Next season's schedule is also expected to be announced soon, featuring a full slate of games -- including more intradivisonal and intraconference games than before.
Another order of business Friday is the approval of rules modifications that the league hopes will free up play and increase offense. Widening the blue lines, taking out the red line and cutting down big goalie pads are all possible.
Bettman and league chief legal officer Bill Daly joined union adversaries Bob Goodenow and Ted Saskin at a table Thursday shortly after the deal they struck last week was ratified.
Neither man from the league side gloated or claimed victory in the fight that cost the NHL a full season without hockey. But it was clear Bettman felt satisfaction, though he said no personal animosity existed between him and Goodenow.
"I have great confidence in our game, I have great confidence in the people associated with our game and most importantly I have great faith and confidence in our fans," Bettman said. "We will come back strongly and I believe you will see that this agreement will have been a very effective and important catalyst in bringing us forward in ways we couldn't have without the right structure."
Bettman vowed that clubs would have "cost certainty" -- a hard salary cap tied to league revenues. Goodenow promised that he would never agree to either. But when the deal was signed, he was forced to accept both.
"Players care about the game, we love the game; it's our livelihood," players' association president Trevor Linden said. "So it's either try to find something that is acceptable, or we're looking at another year of sitting in the same situation.
"That is ultimately what led to a bridge in the gap," he said.
Goodenow pledged his support for the deal and said he intends to keep his job as the NHLPA's executive director. He wouldn't say if he would also take a 24 percent rollback in his salary -- one provision of the deal players agreed to.
Many players are unhappy that a full season was lost and the union ended up accepting a salary cap anyway. They came to Toronto on Wednesday for a two-day meeting to find out why.
Under the new deal, players are guaranteed to receive 54 percent of league-wide revenues -- projected to be between $1.7 billion and $1.8 billion next season. A portion of every player's salary will be held in escrow if it is determined that revenues are smaller, resulting in players receiving more than 54 percent.
With salaries and revenues directly linked, players and owners will need to be partners now more than ever.
"The players I talked to are excited about getting back, especially when they heard about some of the rules changes that are going to be implemented," said Ottawa forward Daniel Alfredsson, a member of the union's executive committee.
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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