-- After the NHL's Board of Governors voted unanimously Friday to ratify the collective bargaining agreement, Commissioner Gary Bettman stood behind a podium emblazoned with the league's new black and silver logo and wasted little time announcing his plan to lure back the legions of bitter fans, many of whom had lost interest even before the labor dispute wiped out all of last season.
The league officially opens for business Saturday, a little over two months before the opening night of the 2005-06 season, facing the biggest public relations challenge in its history.
This new collective bargaining agreement "signals a new era for our league, an era of economic stability for our franchises, an era of heightened competitive balance for our players, an era of unparalleled excitement and entertainment for our fans," Bettman said.
That era began with a bang for Pittsburgh, which won the 2005 draft lottery and the right to select junior phenom Sidney Crosby, the brightest prospect to come along in a generation, with the No. 1 overall pick. The 17-year-old forward will officially become a Penguin on July 30 in Ottawa, the site of the entry draft. (The Washington Capitals will pick 14th).
Crosby's arrival couldn't have come at a more crucial time for the embattled league or the struggling Penguins.
"We know this was a terrible time for everyone associated with our game," Bettman said. "We pledge to our fans that we will do everything we can to make it up to you."
Here's some ways the league plans to do that:
* Several rule changes intended to increase entertainment value and promote scoring were adopted. Those changes include smaller goaltender equipment, shootouts to decide tied games, ignoring the center ice red line, tag-up offsides, and moving back the goal line to expand the offensive zone.
* In a effort to emphasize division rivalries, each club will play the other four teams in its division eight times. A full schedule will be released next week; all 30 teams will open Oct. 5.
* Whenever the league secures a cable television deal in the United States -- something Bettman hopes to do soon -- players and coaches will wear microphones for telecasts and conduct interviews during game action. The league is also exploring using different cameras to help fans follow the action on television.
* Individual teams are expected to formulate initiatives aimed at reconnecting with their fans -- something Capitals majority owner Ted Leonsis said he is eager to begin.
"I'm going to talk to as many fans as I can," Leonsis said. "We've been under so many gag orders, we haven't been able to talk to anybody. So I've been talking via message boards and via e-mail. But I need to get back out there and really understand what we can do to heal what we created. No league, no business has ever gone through something like that."
Leonsis attended the meeting at a Manhattan hotel with Capitals General Manager George McPhee. The two headed back to Washington immediately afterward to begin poring over the nearly 600-page collective bargaining agreement and mapping out the club's future. Beginning Saturday, teams can buy out players and negotiate with 2003 draftees and its own free agents.
"We're still learning the intricacies of the deal," Leonsis said. "Our homework assignment over the weekend is read this big, big book. I'm nervous about just jumping in. . . .
"Philosophically, I'm going to be patient. We have young kids. I think we need to be built to last. I know we need to bring in some veteran players to add to the kids, which we'll do. But I don't think you'll see from us rash decisions early on to make a splash. Our covenant with the fan base is we are going to build the team the right way."
Alexander Ovechkin, the Capitals' 19-year-old No. 1 overall draft pick a year ago, is one of those young players. Leonsis and McPhee made their first public comments about Ovechkin's decision Wednesday to terminate his contract with his Russian Super League team and play for the Capitals.
"That was a very bold move on his part," McPhee said. "You have to understand his situation. He's a young guy, 19 years old, and he's in his own country and the team is offering him a heck of a lot of money and he's already practicing with them. It's a difficult thing to get up and walk away. I don't know how many people could have done that."
Leonsis added: "What I hope is that Ovechkin and Crosby can do what Larry Bird and Magic Johnson did in the rejuvenation of the NBA. Alex wants to compete against the best, and the NHL is back open for business. We're all excited."