They're picking up sticks, sharpening skates

Today is supposed to be the day for smiles in the NHL. The league and the NHL Players Association are expected to officially sign a six-year collective bargaining agreement, and all around the league, players and coaches will be on the ice for practice for the first time in 3 1/2 months.

But last night, details of that agreement still were unclear and the outcome of the players' vote not entirely certain.


NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow continued to meet in New York yesterday to work out the remaining "transition" issues.

They included such things as:


* When the rookie salary cap kicks in -- this season or next?

* Are players entering their option years covered by the old agreement or the new?

* Will player insurance payments paid by the NHLPA the last three months be reinbursed?

"My sense is that the contract will be ratified," said Washington Capitals forward Dave Poulin. "We've put our faith in our negotiating committee all along and they've recommended we accept this deal. I can't imagine we'd not follow their recommendation."

And after the Capitals met last night, Poulin was still optimistic that their secret ballot would approve the deal.

But he cautioned that, "When you have 700 people, obviously some are going to be affected in different ways by the various numbers and you may see that reflected in [the vote]."

And NHLPA vice president Kelly Miller noted the union's negotiating committee, of which he is a member, did not recommend the agreement unanimously.

"I don't have any sense of how the vote went," said Miller of his Capitals teammates ballots. "And I have mixed emotions [about the deal]. It's been a tough negotiation and I really have no comment. We'll see how the vote goes tomorrow and go from there."


Capitals forward Steve Konowalchuk said he was 95 percent sure his teammates would vote to accept.

"I'm excited to get started," said Konowalchuk, who hoped the Capitals would be experiencing their first official practice of the regular season at 1 p.m. today. "It was pretty frustrating just sitting there."

But Konowalchuk didn't just sit, said Poulin.

"I think as you get older, you realize the importance of getting into and staying in shape," said Poulin, 36. "But I also think the work ethic of a lot of our guys has been underestimated.

"Keith Jones, Craig Berube, Joe Reekie and others have been working every day, and Steve Konowalchuk was like a kid looking for someone to play with.

"He'd skate, play tennis and then ask if someone wanted to play racquetball. You name it and he'd want to do it."


If the contract is ratified and signed today, a 48-game season is expected to begin next Friday. And the Capitals' players are hoping that what they've been doing over the last 104 days will pay big dividends.

The Capitals, from 10 to 15 of them depending on the day, have skated from three to five days a week at Piney Orchard Ice Arena and worked out regularly at the Bowie Racquet and Fitness Club.

"We've stuck together," said Konowalchuk. "A lot of other teams split up more. Maybe that's in our favor, we'll have to wait and see."

* Atlantic Division teams will meet each other four times, two games at home, two on the road. Because each team has six Atlantic rivals, that makes 24 games, half of the schedule.

The 24 other games will be against the seven rivals from the Northeast Division.

That means Atlantic teams will play three of the Northeast teams four times each, for a total of 12 games, and the four other Northeast teams three times each, for a total of 12 games.