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.
"At the end of the day, everybody lost," Wayne Gretzky, the NHL's career scoring leader and the managing partner of the Phoenix Coyotes, told Canadian television. "We almost crippled our industry. It was very disappointing what happened."
The NHL's Board of Governors is expected to meet in New York next week for a ratification vote; the players are expected to gather in Toronto, also next week. If the sides ratify the agreement, the season will start on time in October.
But whether anyone will care remains a central issue. The NHL lost its $60 million national cable television contract during the lockout after ESPN found that it could get better ratings with almost any other programming. More significantly, the shuttering of the league resulted in very little public protest from U.S. sports fans.
The deal was announced by the NHL and the players' association via e-mail yesterday afternoon. The league also is planning rules changes designed to improve the popularity of the game and boost TV ratings. Two league officials said last night that the rules changes were still being finalized.
"I hope they are still going to have fans," said John DiGiulian, a longtime Washington Capitals season ticket holder. "A lot of people I know seem to have lost interest. I don't know if they're going to have a fan base or not."
Added Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon: "Until the product is back on the shelf, you can't say what the market is going to be. The NHL hopes its core fans are the first to come back -- and that they bring a friend."
The deal came after 10 consecutive days of intense negotiations between the league and players in New York, including an all-night session that began Tuesday afternoon and wrapped up yesterday morning.
Among the points a prominent agent, team officials and a player said they expect will be in the several hundred page document when it is announced include:
* A very restrictive salary cap that calls for total player compensation to account for no more than 54 percent of leaguewide revenue. Next year's salary cap will have a ceiling in the high $30 million range and a floor in the low $20 million range per team, according to one owner.
* All existing player contracts will be subject to a 24 percent rollback. For example, Capitals goaltender Olaf Kolzig's $6.5 million contract for next season is now worth $4.94 million.
* Players will lose their entire salaries for last season although they will get credit toward their pensions and retirement.
"I think the deal is not great for the players. It is definitely an owner-friendly deal," Philadelphia Flyers forward Jeremy Roenick told the Associated Press. "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. Unfortunately, it had to take a whole year to get to a point where we could have been last year."
* A revenue-sharing plan that a league source said would redistribute money from the top 10 earning teams to the bottom 10, although the source did not know the formula for the redistribution.
* Next season will be interrupted for two weeks in February to allow NHL players to participate in the Olympic Games in Turin, Italy.
* A package of rules changes aimed at increasing scoring is planned. Some of the major rules changes are expected to be tag-up offsides, smaller goaltending equipment, pushing back the goal line, and shootouts to decide tie games. Two league officials said the possible elimination of the center-ice red line had not been agreed upon as of early last night.
* The draft lottery will give all 30 teams a shot at landing the No. 1 pick; however, it will be weighted, giving teams that have struggled in recent years a better chance. Teams will be assigned as many as three and as few as one ball in the lottery. The Capitals will get only one ball, because they have qualified for the playoffs at least once in the past three years and won the lottery in 2004.
"Details of the new agreement will not be made available publicly pending the formal ratification process by NHLPA Members and the NHL Board of Governors," an e-mail from the NHLPA said. "It is anticipated that the ratification process will be completed next week, at which time the parties will be prepared to discuss the details of the agreement and plans for next season. No further comment will be made until then."
Bettman locked out the players on Sept. 15, claiming losses of $500 million from 2002 to '04, which the NHL blamed on player salaries that had grown out of control. By February the players' association said it would agree to a deal that included a salary cap but only if it did not include a link to league revenues.
But Bettman wouldn't budge and he canceled the season Feb. 16. Gretzky and Mario Lemieux tried to save the season with a bargaining session a few days later but failed and the NHL became the only league in North American professional sports history to lose an entire season because of a labor dispute.
The NHL will return this fall if the deal is approved.
"It's not a done deal," said one owner, who declined to be identified because the negotiations are at such a critical stage. "It needs to be ratified. It ain't over until it's over. Just like any other business deal, until the contract is signed, it's not a deal. There's a little piece of me that is worried."
"I'm excited the two sides have gotten something they are comfortable bringing back to us," said center Jeff Halpern, who played for the Capitals at the time of the lockout. "I would like to think that it's worth looking at. I can't wait until the day we start up again. It's been way too long."
For the Capitals and their fans, though, the announcement couldn't have been more timely. It will likely give the club enough time to sign 2004 No. 1 overall draft pick Alexander Ovechkin in time to get him on the ice at MCI Center this season.
Ovechkin earlier this month signed a contract to play for Avangard Omsk of the Russian Super League. But Ovechkin's contract includes a clause that allows him to back out and sign with the Capitals if the NHL and the players finalize a CBA by July 20, Ovechkin's agent, Don Meehan, said last week.
Once the deal is ratified, the NHL will announce plans for a draft lottery and entry draft, which will reportedly be held in Ottawa later this month or in early August. In the meantime, general managers and agents will be allowed time to digest the details of the CBA before what is expected to be a wild free-agent signing period later this month. The Capitals, like many teams, have only a handful of players under contract for next season.