Icing on the cake

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:59 AM ET

The waiting may finally be over, but for the world's most recognized hockey league and its players, an achingly long lockout has come with a price.

The NHL and the NHL Players' Association yesterday announced they have hammered out a tentative six-year deal pending ratification by both sides next week.

The new collective bargaining agreement ends the longest work stoppage in the history of major professional sports, one that wiped out an entire season of big-league hockey.

Given the cost to all parties though, the celebration of its imminent merciful end yesterday was muted.

Players will face dramatic cuts in salary and earnings opportunities when the NHL regular season resumes in October. Owners in some of the weakest markets, meanwhile, must convince indifferent audiences they can put on a show worth watching after a full season out of business.

"At the end of the day, everybody lost," Phoenix Coyotes owner Wayne Gretzky said. "We almost crippled our industry. For everyone to say 'all right, let's forgive and forget, let's move forward,' ... it's a lot easier said than done.

"It's going to take a lot of hard work."

The players' ratification vote is set for next Wednesday here in Toronto while the owners will convene in New York. They'll be voting on a deal that includes:

- A hard salary cap -- originally a dealbreaker for the players -- that initially will have a $39 million U.S. ceiling per club.

- A hefty 24% rollback on current salaries.

- Stipulation that no individual can earn more than 20% of the team cap, which for the upcoming season makes $7.8 million U.S. the top allowable wage.

- Believed to be a late concession won by NHLPA boss Bob Goodenow as of 2007-08 players can become unrestricted free agents at the age of 25.

The players are expected to accept a deal many believe they could have had a year ago. But neither Goodenow or NHL commissioner Gary Bettman would bend and for the first time since 1919, the Stanley Cup was not awarded.

"I firmly believe this is a deal the players will support," Senators captain and NHLPA VP Daniel Alfredsson told Sun Media. "We wouldn't go to the players if we didn't believe this deal is acceptable and that it would pass."

Once ratified, the league will be faced with the task of getting up to business speed in a hurry.

With some 400 players in contract limbo, a wild summer of free agency looms. The result will be significant roster upheaval as management scrambles to build contenders as cost efficiently as possible.

Then there is the annual entry draft -- better known this year as the Sidney Crosby sweeps -- to be held in Ottawa on July 30.

The junior phenom will be the prize catch for the team determined by a draft lottery to select first overall.

After all was said and done and 1,230 games cancelled, it appears the players blinked first.

"The players were just worn out, beaten down," Hockey Night In Canada icon Don Cherry told the Sun last night.

Veteran goaltender Sean Burke, one of many who will be flailing in the free agent pool, agrees.

"I don't think the deal that we're going to get would have been ratified last summer," Burke said.

"But I just think we've been worn down to this point where the deal would really have to be incredibly bad for the guys not to vote it in."

While hockey-mad markets such as Toronto will undoubtedly see fans bounce back, there is fear that many in the U.S. won't be so eager for hockey's return.

The same cities where the old economic model was thought to be unworkable, now must rebuild a fan base.

"That's going to be our next big step, winning back the fans," Nashville Predators veteran Jim McKenzie said.

"We'll have our work cut out for us."


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