SUN Hockey Pool

'Bombshell for the players'

BRUCE GARRIOCH -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 11:21 AM ET

Like the unsuspecting victims of an earthquake, NHL players could be blindsided by a major shock.

As the NHL and the Players' Association work toward the finish line of their negotiation -- which may arrive early next week -- speculation is rampant about what the new collective bargaining agreement will contain.

One thing appears certain: It isn't going to be pretty for the players. Not only is their bargaining team going to accept the hard salary cap with linkage to NHL revenues they fought tooth and nail to avoid, they've given in on other key issues. It could amount to a total surrender.

"This is going to be a bombshell for the players," said a league source. "They've done a good job at keeping this quiet, but I believe what the union's executive committee is about to accept is going to be a real shocker for some players."

Multiple sources on both sides told the Sun the deal's framework could look something like this once it is signed, sealed and delivered:

$39 MILLION CAP?

- A hard cap set at 54% of league revenues -- projected to drop by $300 million to $1.8 billion (all terms US) next season -- that will include all player salaries, signing bonuses and performance bonuses. The $2.2 million teams allot for insurance and pension plan contributions won't be included in that figure. The cap could be in the $39 million range, with a floor of about $24 million. There's talk of a dollar-for-dollar luxury tax starting around the $30 million mark, with that money redistributed to lower revenue teams.

- The biggest shocker in this deal could be the players agreeing to put 15-20% of their annual salaries into escrow every year. If the league doesn't meet its revenue projections, then part, or all, of that 15% could go back to the teams to help cover costs. The NBA has a similar clause in its CBA. Many NHLers will find it hard to stomach.

"We've talked a lot in our meetings about how stupid that idea is," said one NHL veteran. "I sure hope that doesn't happen to us, but it might be too late to stop."

Sources on the players side indicated this issue is going to be a tough sell when it comes to getting the agreement ratified.

- There's discussion entry-level salaries could be capped at $850,000 for three years, with a maximum signing bonus of 10% per season. That means 2005 No. 1 pick Sidney Crosby would receive a maximum of $85,000 in a signing bonuses in each of the first three years of his deal. "I don't know why he wouldn't sign in Europe for $2 million tax free and stay there until he can escape the entry level system, if this is what happens," said a league source.

- It's expected the players will accept the 24% rollback they offered in December. Qualifying offers will likely be kept at 100%, but there will be no 10% raise for players below the league average. It could have been worse: The NHL held out until two weeks ago for qualifying offers to be set at 75%.

- Contracts from last season are not expected to be honoured, which will flood the market with free agents. Unrestricted free agency is expected to fall to age 30 in 2005-06, 29 in 2006-07 and 28 in 2007-08.

- Sportsnet hockey analyst and former NHL player Nick Kypreos has confirmed teams will be allowed a one-time, two-thirds buyout of existing contracts that won't count towards the cap. For example, the St. Louis Blues owe $20 million in salary to defenceman Chris Pronger, centre Doug Weight and winger Keith Tkachuk alone next season. Guess what? They all won't be back, because the Blues have the chance to reset their own market. If a team buys out a player, it can't re-sign him for another year.

- The word is commissioner Gary Bettman would like absolute power to fine and suspend players. Under the terms of the last CBA, the maximum fine was a paltry $1,000. That number could be about to change.

- The league minimum salary is expected to move from $175,000 to $400,000.

How was this all shake down for the players?

The stars in the game are still going to make their money, but a lot less of it. Role players are going to be stuck at the league minimum.

The talk around the league is that the NHLPA's executive committee -- and executive director Bob Goodenow -- have been bitterly divided by this negotiation. There is sure to be more unrest when the players see the new deal.

"This is going to be a tough sell to the players and a bitter pill to swallow," said a source.


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