TORONTO -- NHL players voted overwhelmingly yesterday 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 in the pecking
order of sports.
The forecast is far better in Canada, where most fans can't wait to crack open a cold one and catch a game.
Chances are they'll need a program to figure out who's playing for whom. The new economic landscape is expected
to trigger a flurry of player moves.
The player vote (464-68 in favour) 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 hockey 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, 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,"
Bottom line, the agreement reflected the will of his membership. Goodenow said 87 to 88 per cent of players
who cast ballots voted for the deal.
"I think everyone understands. It's time to go back and play," Wayne Gretzky told The Score.
But it's clear the players 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 today.
That will be followed by a 3 p.m. news conference outlining proposed rule changes, then the draft lottery (TSN, 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 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."
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 today, the sport's economic landscape will be radically changed
with a salary cap looming large.
There'll 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.
Asked if he'd 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.
Both sides said the new deal was complicated and would take time to unfold