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July 14, 2005 - Players, owners finally prepared to end lockout

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Players, owners finally prepared to end lockout


The Flyers must be more careful with their money now, something that could affect Tony Amonte (top), John LeClair (middle) and Jeremy Roenick. [STYL]cf,fgb,7 Courier-Post file photos

Thursday, July 14, 2005

By CHUCK GORMLEY
Courier-Post Staff

This time, it's official. After months of negotiations and weeks of speculation, the National Hockey League announced Wednesday morning it had come to an agreement in principle with the league's players on a six-year Collective Bargaining Agreement.

The ratification process will begin next week when players meet in Toronto Wednesday and Thursday and the NHL Board of Governors meet Thursday. An announcement that the NHL has reopened its doors after a 323-day lockout is expected Thursday, July 21.

"I think it's fantastic," Flyers chairman Ed Snider said. "It still has to be ratified, so I don't want to get too excited, but I'm sure it will be. Too much work has been done to see it not (ratified)."

Flyers captain Keith Primeau said some players will argue they gave up too much in the deal, but he believes ratification by the players will be "a formality."

"People who thought this could have been done at midseason last year weren't paying attention," Primeau said. "Let's cut to the meat and bones. The owners weren't ready to meet us at that point. They were prepared to sacrifice the season, probably more than we were. I mean, look how long it took us to get to this point."

The agreement, which consists of more than 600 documents, came after nine intense days of negotiating between NHL vice president Bill Daly and NHLPA senior director Ted Saskin. Since the 2004-05 season was officially canceled Feb. 16, the two sides met on 82 occasions, leading to an agreement that will drastically alter the league's financial landscape.

At face value, the owners clearly won the standoff by getting cost certainty in the form of a salary cap in the range of $37 million to $39 million. Player agent Rick Curran said he believes the salary floor has been set at $21.5 million and the ceiling set at $39 million.

The owners will receive an additional 15 percent of every player's paycheck this season. If spending on salaries exceeds 54 percent of revenue, the difference will be paid to teams from the escrow account. If teams spend less than 54 percent, the escrow money will be returned to players.

The new salary structure will close the payroll gap between free-spending teams like the Rangers, Flyers and Red Wings and small-market teams like the Penguins, Oilers and Flames.

The new CBA also will give teams the right to salary arbitration, a right reserved for players in the old deal. That means instead of offering players a mandatory 10 percent raise as a qualifying offer, teams can offer underachieving players less than what they made in their previous season.

"I'm not about to debate over whether we got our (behinds) kicked," Curran said. "I have no time for it. I can't change it, I just have to live with it."

The players' victories were minor, but significant nonetheless.

The NHL minimum salary will increase from $300,000 to $400,000. Unrestricted free agency will fall from age 31 this year to 29 next year and 28 in 2007. And player pensions will be dramatically increased.

Flyers prospects Jeff Carter and Mike Richards also benefited from the new deal. As 2003 draft picks, they will be eligible for the 2003 rookie limit of $1.24 million. With the 24 percent rollback, that figure will drop to $942,400, but they remain eligible for signing and performance bonuses up to 30 percent of their salary.

Although it is too early to predict the financial impact of the new deal, average NHL salaries are projected to fall from $1.8 million to just more than $1 million. That alone has some players bitter toward union chief Bob Goodenow.

Primeau said players expecting more than they received in the new deal weren't paying attention to Goodenow when he briefed every NHL team throughout the past two NHL seasons.

"We were forewarned for several years to expect this apocalypse," Primeau said. "It should not have blind-sided anybody."

Primeau is also not convinced the players got a raw deal.

"We can look back in five or 10 years and say, `What a bargain,"' he said. "If you would have told players 10 years ago we'd have a $35 million cap, they'd be ecstatic. As much as we preached `No cap,' we knew to get a deal done cost certainty was inevitable."

Snider agreed.

"I think it's self-evident that we needed the lockout. When the league needs to miss a whole season, it shows we needed something drastic to have cost certainty. Now we have it."

Next on the NHL's agenda is a way to win back fans. When the ratification is completed and labor peace is declared, the NHL will also unveil rule changes designed to increase offense and create more excitement.

Overtime shootouts, tag-up offsides, no-touch icing and, possibly, wider nets will be used in the 2005-06 season.

Flyers left wing John LeClair said the injection of offense should help the game, but it will take months to recover from a year without hockey.

"When we come back we'll have football to contend with, so it might take a while," LeClair said. "Hopefully, with the new rules changes it will be more exciting to watch and we'll see crowds grow throughout the year."