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July 21, 2005 - NHL players approve new NHL labour agreement, look forward to hockey

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NHL players approve new NHL labour agreement, look forward to hockey

NEIL DAVIDSON Thu Jul 21, 6:23 PM ET

TORONTO (CP) - NHL players voted overwhelmingly Thursday to drop the puck, approving a labour deal both sides agreed would trigger radical change in the game.

The players, who were locked out by owners determined to instil "cost certainty" in their league, return to a game that will have a new look on and off the ice. Paycheques will be smaller but the league hopes the game will be more exciting, thanks to a series of new rules.

Thrills will be needed to lure fans back to arenas in the U.S., where hockey languishes well down the pecking order of sports. The forecast is far better in Canada, where most hockey fans can't wait to crack open a cold one and catch a game.

Chances are they will need a program to figure out who's playing for who. The new economic landscape is expected to trigger a flurry of player moves.

The player vote was announced at a news conference where commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players' Association executive director Bob Goodenow sat side by side.

It marked the first time in months that either had spoken publicly on the lockout that wiped out an entire season (1,230 games plus the playoffs), kept the Stanley Cup in mothballs and soured a legion of fans.

It was also the first joint news conference for the two since Salt Lake City in 2002 when they exchanged barbs over the labour issue.

Not surprisingly, Bettman was bullish on the deal Thursday, calling it an "important catalyst in bringing us forward."

Goodenow was more muted, saying time will tell. But he was able to find some positives during a news conference that lacked drama, saying the complicated deal had "player-friendly aspects."

"I think history will show that this was an inflection point and a launching pad for all aspects of the game," he said.

Bottom line, the agreement reflected the will of his membership. Goodenow said 87 to 88 per cent of players who cast ballots did so in favour of the agreement.

"I think everyone understands. It's time to go back and play," Wayne Gretzky said.

But it's clear the players probably voted holding their noses.

"It's time to move forward. We can't drag our feet any longer," said veteran Keith Primeau of the Philadelphia Flyers. "More than anything, guys just want to return to playing."

The action now shifts to New York, when the league's board of governors has its say at a 1 p.m. meeting Friday. That will be followed by a 3 p.m. news conference outlining proposed rule changes and then the draft lottery (TV, 4 p.m.)

The lottery has a real prize for one lucky team in the form of Sidney Crosby, a teenage talent who will attract hockey fans like a magnet.

Expected rule changes include allowing two-line passes to open up the game, yet another crackdown on obstruction and shootouts to decide ties.

Bettman, for one, was confident that the NHL can win its fans back.

"I have great confidence in our game, I have great confidence in the people associated with our game and most importantly I have great faith and confidence in our fans," Bettman said.

"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 without the right structure."

Goodenow and Bettman were flanked at the table by their right-hand men: Ted Saskin for the NHLPA and Bill Daly for the league. Both have worked night and day in recent months to strike a deal.

Asked by reporters, both Bettman and Goodenow said they had no plans to leave their jobs. And they dismissed talk of personal antagonism between them.

Once the league adds its stamp of approval Friday in New York, the sport's economic landscape will be radically changed with a salary cap looming large.

There will also be a 24 per cent rollback on all existing contracts, a suggestion the players themselves made early on to counter the league's insistence on a salary cap.

"I don't like the rollback, no question," said Columbus player rep Todd Marchant, whose salary will be $2.47 million US next season instead of $3.25 million. "No one's happy about that but it's something we had to do."

Asked if he would take a 24 per cent cut in his pay, reported at $2.5 million US a year, Goodenow smiled and said that was up to union's executive.

"We haven't really frankly talked about that," he said.

And they will have to do it together. Bettman said that is one of the deal's positives.

"My perspective on this is I think this will turn out to be a wonderful agreement for the players, a wonderful agreement for the game and a wonderful agreement for our fans," he said. "And it's the type of agreement that we think a professional sports league like ours can thrive under for everyone's benefit because we are true economic partners, true partners in the game, sharing fairly. And that's always been our goal and objective."

Goodenow, who had opposed the salary cap and so-called linkage, still seemed to see the glass as half-full when talking about the agreement.

"It's revenue-driven, so everybody here is just talking about how we can increase revenues and grow the game," he said.

And he said the final document was better than earlier league proposals.

"In my opinion, clearly the deal today from our perspective is better and actually more fair to both sides than was being discussed in February," he said. "There wasn't really a deal in February."

Both sides said the new deal was complicated and would take time to unfold.

"I think this is probably a good time for everyone to take a deep breath," said Bettman. "Exactly how this deal will work will emerge over the next few weeks and months."

The new deal ties costs to revenue so both sides have an incentive to grow the game.

Some 225 players were in Toronto for the NHLPA vote, with the other 500 or so casting their ballots electronically.

The Columbus Blue Jackets didn't wait for word of the vote. Earlier in the day, they announced season-ticket prices would be reduced by eight per cent on average. The cheapest upper bowl season ticket will be $13 a game, down from $17. That's the lowest in team history.

They also announced a picnic for fans and a free exhibition game against Buffalo for season-ticket holders.

Labour wasn't the only issue addressed Thursday.

Asked at the news conference about reinstating suspended Canucks forward Todd Bertuzzi, Bettman said it was on his list of things to do.

"We have a lot going on right now," he said dryly.

As for the NHL draft, Bettman said it was returning to Ottawa - the expected date is July 30.