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NHL Players Union Ratifies Deal; Season to Begin

By Len Hochberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 14, 1995

National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman, alongside union leader Bob Goodenow, jointly announced yesterday that the players ratified the collective bargaining agreement and that the long-delayed season will begin Friday.

Goodenow said the majority of some 650 members of the NHL Players' Association rank-and-file had voted for the proposal that was agreed to in principle on Wednesday, just as the noon season-cancellation deadline had arrived. "In fact," he said, "a majority of the players on each of the 26 teams {voted for approval} as well." A specific tally was not announced.

The key obstacle from the start was player payrolls. Before the negotiations began, the owners insisted on a salary cap, a measure that would curb spending on player salaries. Players said they would oppose any form of a pay cut. The owners eventually softened their stance and offered a plan in which owners who exceeded a salary ceiling would be taxed. Still the players balked, saying the tax would negatively affect their salaries. The owners kept lowering the tax rate; the players kept balking.

The turning point in the negotiations came in the first days of January. In meetings between the lawyers for both sides, the owners finally removed the luxury tax from their proposal.

Said Bettman: "I think the board understood this fully: that if we wanted a cap or a tax, it would have required losing the season, at least. And as a result, I think the board, the owners, were comfortable that this agreement wasn't worth the rest of the season."

Said the Capitals' Kelly Miller, an NHLPA vice president: "Our stance all along was: As long as the tax is on the table, there won't be a deal. Once that came off, then both sides worked hard to work the deal."

Another Capital, veteran Dave Poulin, provided a "glaring example" of what was so problematic to the players about the tax. During the later stages of the owners' proposal, the tax would have taken effect when a team's payroll reached $18 million. "Buffalo has four players that make $11 million," he said.

"We keep hearing that our salaries won't drop, but with an $18 million cap and a 24-man roster, there would have been $7 million for the other 20 guys." If the Sabres paid those remaining players more than $7 million, the team's excess salary payments would have been subject to the tax, meaning fewer profits for the team, the players argued.

So facing a tax or a season, the owners moved for -- and got -- concessions in other areas: lowering the rookie salary cap from $1 million to $850,000, fine-tuning salary arbitration, raising the eligible age for unrestricted free agency from 30 to 32.

The owners voted 19-7 to pass the agreement, and then it was put to a vote of the players. But it still did not sit well with some owners -- the so-called hawks, including the Capitals -- who thought the lockout was about linking revenues to expenditures, about putting a drag on player salaries.

"Too much is made about the notion of hawks and doves, because everybody wanted to play hockey," Bettman said. "The issue was: On what terms did it make sense."

There also were some disputes among the players once the agreement had been forged but before it had been ratified. Players held a "heated," 2 1/2-hour conference call on Thursday night, Anaheim Mighty Ducks captain Randy Ladouceur told reporters. And there were some final anxious moments yesterday, as the noon news conference was delayed until Bettman and Goodenow arrived at a Manhattan hotel some 4 1/2 hours later.

"We have a signed document, which is what took the few hours to work out," Bettman said.

"It's a legally binding document. It contains the basic essential terms, but it is not what people classically call a formal collective bargaining agreement. It's more of a memorandum of understanding. A number of things have to be worked over the next month so we can get a formal collective bargaining agreement, but the memorandum of understanding ... will keep the game going."

The 78th NHL regular season -- delayed by the 103-day-old lockout -- will last 104 days, from next Friday till May 3. The playoffs will begin on May 6 and will end no later than July 1. Each club will play 48 games, down from an original 84, and will play intraconference matchups only. There will be eight games on opening night, highlighted by the New York Rangers finally getting to raise their long-awaited Stanley Cup banner before their game against the Sabres at Madison Square Garden.

The players are looking forward to getting back on the ice. "There was some rather lively banter at noontime today," Goodenow said.

"... There was some discussion about who was playing who in a week's time, some comments going back and forth. So I can assure you that the pent-up competitive spirit of the players will bubble forth in a week's time."

So after waking up on Friday the 13th "concerned that it would be an ominous day," Bettman went to bed last night knowing he was able to get the owners and players to agree to the six-year deal -- one without a salary cap or luxury tax.

© 1995 The Washington Post Company

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