National Hockey League

Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 15, 2005 2:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer Tarik El-Bashir was online Friday, July 15, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the agreement reached between the National Hockey League and its players' association.

In Thursday's Post, El-Bashir and Washington Post staff writer Thomas Heath report:

"The National Hockey League and its players' association yesterday agreed on a new collective bargaining agreement that, if ratified by both sides, would end the nearly 10-month lockout that resulted in the cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season and raised serious doubts about the league's stature in the United States.

"Although no details were announced, the new six-year deal is expected to be a major victory for the owners and Commissioner Gary Bettman because it includes the salary cap they desired -- and the players' association vowed never to allow."

Read the Article

A transcript follows.

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Tarik El-Bashir: Thanks for joining me. Glad to see so many questions about hockey on such a miserably hot and humid day here in DC. There are plenty of great ones, so let me begin answering them.

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Arlington, Va.: Do the Capitals still get to keep the rights to Ovechkin? What's he been doing this past year?

Tarik El-Bashir: Yes. The Capitals will still own the rights to Ovechkin whether he plays here this season or not. How long they keep his rights depends on the new CBA, which virtually no one has seen.

Alex played for Moscow Dynamo last season and scored 13 goals and had 14 assists. He helped them to the championship of the Russian Super League.

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Let's cut to the chase ...: Will the Caps be contracted?

Tarik El-Bashir: No. I don't think any teams will be contracted in the near future. Now that the league has its restrictive cap, team owners should, emphasis on should, be able to make money.

Washington has hockey fans. The number of youth leagues in the 'burbs is booming. Leonsis just needs to figure out how to get those fans (and young hockey players and their parents) in the building.

The easiest way is to build a team that wins. And to make the fan experience affordable, from parking to tickets to sodas.

The Caps have their work cut out for them.

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Arlington, Va.: Tarik --

When should we expect to hear anything from the Caps on the schedule, season ticket payments, etc? Do they have to wait until the CBA is formally ratified before they address those items?

Tarik El-Bashir: Things like schedules and ticket prices are being hammered out as we speak. There will be no announcements with regard to that stuff until the CBA is ratified. If all goes well, perhaps by Friday.

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South Riding, Va.: Hi. When we last left the Caps, they had a huge salary dump and traded away every quality player except Kolzig. Will they continue with their cheap ways, or are they willing to spend money on some enticing free agents in this new environment? Thanks.

Tarik El-Bashir: The Capitals will have to spend some money on free agents. The club's long term plan was to dump salary, get top prospects in return and put them in the AHL so they could learn to play together. That has happened, but it's unclear how many of those prospects (Tomas Fleischmann and Jakub Kelpis) are ready to play in the NHL this season. Not many, I'm willing to bet.

That said, I wouldn't expect the Caps to go on a spending spree when free agency begins. Leonsis has learned his lesson. (He's still paying for Jagr.) But they'll have to sign a dozen or so mid-level free agents in order to fill the Caps and Bears rosters. As I look over their list of signed players right now (there are nine), Kolzig and Alex Semin are the only two I know for sure will play here next year.

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Dulles, Va.: What can we expect from the Caps? Since they're likely on the hook for their portion of Jagr's salary, will this team just go beyond the new salary floor?

Tarik El-Bashir: I wouldn't expect too much from the Caps in the short-term. Leonsis and McPhee are committed to building this team with young and talented players, much the way Tampa Bay did. And that's going to take time and patience. The Caps' farm system is rated among the best in the league.

I would expect the Caps to spend beyond the floor, but stay well short of the ceiling this season. I don't see them pursuing any elite free agents, but perhaps some mid-to-upper level players. They need help in the middle and on the blue line.

The Capitals are still on the hook for about $4.5 of Jagr's contract for next season. It's believed a portion of that payment will count against the Capitals' cap. We aren't sure of the exact figure, but we'll know as soon as the CBA becomes public.

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Washington, D.C.: Why didn't the league just get rid of some franchises that don't make money and have no fan base? That would get rid of the mediocre hockey player and allow for a better game as you only have the BEST players in the league instead of brutes like Bertuzzi. Speaking of which- think he'll be reinstated or will he have to sit out this season since there will actually be a season?

Tarik El-Bashir: Many hockey fans share your sentiment with regard to the teams that don't make money. But 'getting rid' of them isn't that simple. The owners of the teams that operate in the red aren't just going to fold up shop without receiving a large buyouts from the other owners. Many of those money- losing teams also have obligations to their building and the companies that operate their building and cannot afford to get out of those deals.

So for the short term, at least, I don't see any teams folding. Five or ten years down the road, it's possible.

As for Bertuzzi, I think Bettman will reinstate him this season. He may be forced to sit out a portion of next season, however. We'll know soon.

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Washington, D.C.: Hanlon is staying? Isn't that the real news of the day -- that the Caps are sticking with a replacement coach?

Tarik El-Bashir: Hanlon will be back for the upcoming season. The team will make the announcement after the CBA is ratified.

The Caps feel Hanlon makes sense for them right now. Being their former farm team coach, he is familiar with the players in the system and he is very good with bringing along youngsters.

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Alexandria, Va.: Has anyone seen the agreement other than council? Can you tell us what the major changes will be under the new agreement, redline? goalie pads? are some of the comments I have heard, can you go a little more in depth? With so few players signed by most clubs how do you see the opening of the season starting as far as clubs that may get off to a great start?

Thanks.

Tarik El-Bashir: No one has seen the CBA. Some general managers are in NY today getting their first look at it. The other GMs see it over the weekend.

The rule changes are not set in stone. They are being debated right now. Smaller goalie pads, tag-up offsides and shootouts are going to be included. The red line is the subject of much debate. The NHL's plan to announce all of the rule changes the same day the CBA is ratified.

I think teams like Philadelphia, Ottawa and Toronto -- they have many playes under contract -- will have a clear advantage.

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Fairfax, Va.: Has there been any reaction from within the Caps' organization as to their places in the Draft Lottery?

Tarik El-Bashir: In the draft lottery, every team will start with three lottery balls, but will lose one for every No. 1 pick they've had the past three years and lose another ball for every playoff appearance during that span. Thus, the Capitals will have only one ball.

As for reaction, it's been my sense that the Capitals are okay with that system.

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Downtown: With a 2006-06 max payroll of ~38 million, the Caps' payroll will be a about 20 percent lower than it was the last time they took the ice. Will the fans be seeing a 20 percent reduction in ticket prices?

Tarik El-Bashir: The Capitals have already lowered the prices of some tickets. Whether they lower them further, now that the league lost an entire season, remains to be seen.

We'll know the Caps' plan for ticket pricing after the CBA is ratified.

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20009: Tarik, let's prognosticate. Throw out some teams you think will be playing for the Cup next spring. Don't forget the last runner-up...

Tarik El-Bashir: It's hard to say because no one knows what the team rosters are going to look like in a few weeks. Buyouts and free agent signings are going to alter the look of nearly every team in the league.

But my guess would be New Jersey, Tampa Bay, Philadelphia and Ottawa will be contenders in the East. San Jose, Calgary, Detroit, and dare I say Phoenix look good out West.

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New York, N.Y.: The other day Don Meehan, Alexander Ovechkin's agent, indicated that Ovechkin may remain in Russia because he can make more money there and his family is there. Is there any indication from the organization, or in general, about AO's thinking this coming season?

Tarik El-Bashir: From everything I've been told, Ovechkin has indicated to the Capitals that he wants to play in the NHL next season. He knows he can make more money in Russia, but he wants to prove himself against the best players in the world.

That would be consistent from what I gathered in my conversations with him last year.

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Alexandria, Va.: What is the status of free agency in the new contract? And aren't there a lot of free agents because so many teams tried to set up contracts that ended with the last year of play? And are these players still those "fake" free agents where it costs an arm and a leg to sign someone from another team ?

Tarik El-Bashir: Free agency will be much more liberal in the new CBA. Although I have not seen it (only the negotiators have) word is it will decline steadily from age 31 next season to perhaps as low as 27 down the line.

According to the NHLPA, only 288 players with one-way NHL contracts are signed for next year. There are some 730 union members.

Get ready for a wild free agency period.

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Washington, D.C.: I have had season tix (2 seats) in the lower bowl since MCI opened. I now also have season tix for the Nationals. The "fan experience" at MCI the past few seasons has been miserable. And while the amenities at RFK are minimal, the "fan experience" is fabulous. What do you see as the top 3 items the Caps need to consider in improving the "fan experience" at MCI, especially, with new competition in town!

Thanks Tarik.

Tarik El-Bashir: Three things I'm hearing from fans:

1) Build an exciting team that plays uptempo hockey and wins.

2) Lower ticket prices. The Caps addressed this last year by cutting the prices of some tickets. Fans want prices to be even lower.

3) Market the team better. The atmosphere at MCI Center is electric when the house is packed. It suffers greatly when that number dips to below 14,000.

The Capitals are aware of the increased competition they face now that DC has baseball. They must act accordingly.

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Columbia, Md.: Can they ever recover? It took baseball four years and some record-breaking action to end their slump ... and that is supposedly "America's pastime." Now the TV deals are mostly gone, there will be even less exposure (the dog shows get more viewers anyway), fans remain disgruntled ... and getting rid of the red-line is going to put fans back in the seats? Am I wrong in fearing the league is lost?

Tarik El-Bashir: You should concerned. Baseball rebounded because it is America's pastime. Hockey, obviously, is not.

No one knows how much damage has been inflicted by the lockout. Losing ESPN (at least for the time being) was a big blow.

The opinion of sports marketers is hockey had so little to lose in the first place, the only direction it can go is up.

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Springfield, Va.: I'm a hardcore Caps fan and I don't understand this antipathy toward tie games in the regular season. All a tie means is that the two teams were evenly matched during that game. The shootout idea is a joke because it renders the game meaningless. So what if two teams finish the game with three goals apiece? It just means that neither had what it takes to beat the other team.

Tarik El-Bashir: You are not the only person who feels a shootout victory is cheap.

But the NHL did its homework when figuring out what rule changes to adopt. And in that research, the league found out that the majority of fans do not like games that end in ties. Fans want a result, and now it looks like they are going to get that.

I gotta say even people in hockey who don't like the idea of shootouts deciding games, still like to watch them. It's exciting.

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Reston, Va.: Any word on a television deal for hockey? Will they go back to being on ESPN?

Tarik El-Bashir: Although ESPN declined its $60 million option to broadcast the NHL, don't be surprised to see games on ESPN this season. If ESPN ca work out a deal similar to the one the NHL has with NBC (no upfront rights fees) it could happen.

It's vital to the NHL that it gets back on ESPN. Like it or not, being on ESPN validates a sport's place in America.

The NHL, by the way, says many other cable networks have inquired.

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Arlington, Va.: Please tell me the playoffs WILL NOT be expanded from 16 to 20 teams! The last thing the NHL needs is for the season next year to go to July!

Tarik El-Bashir: There was a report out of Toronto last week saying the NHL will expand its playoffs to include 20 teams. The NHL quickly shot down the report.

Until the CBA is ratified and the details are announced next week, no one knows for sure what the playoff format will be. It might not change at all.

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Tarik El-Bashir: Thanks for all of your great questions this afternoon. I got to as many as I could. Take care.

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