NHL faceoff over season is vote away

After 103 days, the NHL lockout appears over.

NHL Players' Association executive director Bob Goodenow and his six-man negotiating committee have recommended the owners' last-minute deal for a six-year collective bargaining agreement be ratified. The players are expected to say yes to the deal that would start the season.


If the players agree, training camps would open at noon tomorrow and a 48-game season probably would start Jan. 20.

The question of who won in these long and often acrimonious negotiations seems to have three answers.


Washington Capitals president Dick Patrick, who said his organization was "willing to lose the season if a [salary] cap wasn't agreed to," thought the players won.

"We didn't accomplish what we wanted as far as getting a new system," he said. "Of all the four major sports, we're the only one that is going into next season without a salary cap. . . . If we had been told that we could have this deal before the season started or after a 100-day lockout, we would have taken it then. This deal wasn't worth the 100 days.

"But some owners thought it was more important to get on with the season. All 26 teams have one vote each. It's a democracy."

But New York Rangers goalie Glenn Healy said, though the contract has no salary cap or tax plan in it, "We got killed. We're only accepting this because we have to in order to play hockey this year."

The third view came from Capitals defenseman Jim Johnson, who was busy packing last night.

"I don't know if it's a victory for anybody," said Johnson, who planned to begin driving from Minnesota to Washington at 5 a.m. today. "It should have been settled last summer. Now, hockey is at a loss for losing half a season, and we have to come together and try to recover what we've all lost."

At a news conference at USAir Arena yesterday, Capitals management seemed bursting to get started. "[Capitals coach] Jim Schoenfeld has personally driven everyone in the organization nuts over the past three months," said Washington general manager David Poile. "His golf game can't get any better, and he is in probably as good a shape as any of our players."

Poile said that 16 of the team's players worked out at Piney Orchard Ice Rink yesterday and that all but defenseman Calle Johansson, who would return from Switzerland tomorrow night, would be ready to practice at noon tomorrow.


Though the NHL will not have the league schedule ready until at least tomorrow, the Caps know they'll open on the road next weekend, because there are no home dates available at USAir Arena until Jan. 27.

"The start of the season coincides with what should have been the All-Star break," said Capitals vice president Lew Strudler. "The team was scheduled to be out of the building for 10 days -- and these next two weeks are those 10 days."

The Capitals are expected to have their home opener Jan. 27 and probably also will play at home on Jan. 29, Super Bowl Sunday.

Will the fans come to see them?

"We think we're going to start in the hole with our fans," said Patrick, the team president. "Our job is to win them back, and we'll do everything we can to get them here. I'll pick them up at their house and drive them here if I have to."

During the lockout, 30 percent of the people who had bought tickets -- including single-game tickets, season tickets and partial-plan tickets -- had asked for refunds.


The players also are aware they have some making up to do.

"It's really hard for the average person in North America to understand why athletes complain and bicker over the kind of money they are making," Los Angeles Kings superstar Wayne Gretzky told the Associated Press. "Consequently, the image of our sport is probably going to suffer for a while.

"Hopefully, eventually we'll win over the fans we had and win over new fans that we don't have."

The 700 NHLPA members are to vote on the new deal today. The Capitals expected to vote as soon as a copy of the agreement could be distributed to everyone -- maybe this morning.

All clubs must vote before any signing tomorrow by Goodenow and commissioner Gary Bettman.

Negotiating committee member Ken Baumgartner said it was union solidarity that had made it possible to fight off a salary cap, retain salary arbitration and gain a form of free agency -- a key issue in the final negotiations. But, he added, there are some players who do not like this agreement.


The new deal does not include a union demand for retroactive pay for the players, whose offer to start the season in October under the old agreement with a no-strike pledge was turned down by the owners.

The new agreement reportedly will include:

* Free agency: Players will have to wait until age 32 during the first three seasons of the contract. The age will drop to 31 for the final three seasons.

* A rookie salary cap: The cap begins at $850,000 and rises to $1.075 million.

* Arbitration: There will be three arbitration "walkaway" rights for each team for awards of $550,000 or more over each two-year period.

Los Angeles Kings defenseman Marty McSorley told the Associated Press that ratification was not a foregone conclusion. The Capitals' Johnson agreed.


"It's great it's over -- if it is over," said Johnson. "I don't have a real strong comment until the deal is done. There are so many little issues that aren't done yet -- and not all of them are that little."

But Bettman, speaking briefly after announcing the tentative agreement, described the remaining issues as "transitional" and, though necessary to a final agreement, not major.

"Obviously I am thrilled, happy and ecstatic . . . that this is over and we can get it behind us," said Bettman. "The most important thing now is that we come together with the players, because reaching this collective bargaining agreement is not the end. It's the beginning, the beginning of all of us coming together to build this great game."

Bettman, who spoke briefly, did not answer questions, saying he hoped to be back in front of the mike with Goodenow and NHLPA president Mike Gartner tomorrow announcing the official signing.

And, said Bettman, the players should hear about the agreement from their union officials.

Goodenow also had little to say.


"This has been a long, difficult process, one that has come to a conclusion that both sides can live with," he said. "It's important that we get the focus where it belongs -- the competition."


* Talks between NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and union chief Bob Goodenow began in the morning yesterday.

* After the meeting, NHL Players Association president Mike Gartner announced an agreement had been reached.

* A ratification vote among the union's 700 members was expected, with no practice held before the vote, Gartner said. No time was set for ratification, Gartner said.

* Anaheim Mighty Ducks player representative Bob Corkum said he expects teams to begin workouts tomorrow, with a 48-game season to begin Friday, Jan. 20.


* The owners' final proposal was a six-year deal that included unrestricted free agency for players 32 years old in the first three years of the contract and for those 31 in the last three.