The NHL and its players' association cleared the final hurdle preventing the game's return when the players voted overwhelmingly yesterday to ratify the new collective bargaining agreement.

The NHL's Board of Governors is expected to ratify the deal today in New York, Commissioner Gary Bettman said during a joint news conference in Toronto, thus ending the bitter 10-month labor dispute that resulted in the unprecedented cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season.

"This agreement will turn out to be a wonderful agreement for the players, a wonderful agreement for the owners and wonderful agreement for the fans," Bettman said. "Exactly how this will work will emerge over the coming weeks and months. 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 done without the right structure."

Although the details of the new collective bargaining agreement won't be made public until today, even players admit the new deal is a decisive victory for the owners.

"We weren't going to win this battle," Capitals defenseman Brendan Witt said by phone from his home in Florida. "They won the last time. This is definitely an owner-friendly agreement. The owners want to make money. And now, if they don't, they don't deserve to have a franchise."

The centerpiece of the agreement is the hard salary cap system Bettman and the owners sought. The deal limits total player salaries to 54 percent of league-wide revenue, and contains a 24 percent rollback on all existing player contracts. The salary cap has a $39 million ceiling and a $21.5 million floor.

Despite the disappointment and frustration felt by some players, almost 90 percent of the union voted to ratify the deal, NHL Players Association Executive Director Bob Goodenow said.

"We look forward to starting fresh with this new agreement," Goodenow said. "I am very positive it will work out well for both sides."

Goodenow also said he does not plan to step down despite angry comments from some players in recent weeks suggesting he do so.

"I have a contract with the players. I have enjoyed working with the players," he said. "I have no plans for any changes ahead. In fact, I'm looking forward to growing the game along with everyone else."

While the players did win concessions -- they will become free agents at a younger age, the minimum salary jumps to $450,000 and the league will shut down for two weeks next February to allow players to compete in the Olympics -- many remain bitter about the contents of the new collective bargaining agreement, and have the perception that they forfeited an entire season's worth of wages to accept the deal they might have had last winter.

"It's always easy after the fact," union president Trevor Linden of the Vancouver Canucks told reporters. "I think that we really felt our position was a good one and made sense from a league standpoint."

Goodenow added: "The deal today is better and more fair for both sides than it was in February. This agreement is very, very different than what's ever been a part of this sport. It's revenue-driven. Everyone here is talking about how do we grow the product? History will be able to look back and say there was an inflection point and a launching pad for all aspects for the game."

When the league returns in October it will be much different. After the owners cast their ratification vote, they will decide which rule changes to adopt for the upcoming season. Among the proposed changes are: implementing shootouts to decide tie games; ignoring the center ice red line; moving the goal line back two feet and smaller and more streamlined goalie equipment.

"I'm all for change," Witt said. "It's about excitement and entertainment, right? The way to do that is with more goals and more scoring."

Following the ratification vote, the NHL will hold a news conference in New York to announce the deal. At that time, Bettman will also reveal which rule changes have been approved and the order of the 2005 draft -- something of great importance to general managers and fans alike. The consensus No. 1 pick, junior hockey phenom Sidney Crosby, is considered the best prospect to come along in a generation.

"Times have changed," Witt said. "It's time to move on. This labor problem hurt both sides, it hurt the game, but now we've got to move forward."