SUN Hockey Pool

Young NHL players look forward to a chance to shine

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 9:09 AM ET

National Hockey League players who have massed in Toronto to vote on a new collective bargaining agreement today would do well to heed the words of New York Rangers' Bobby Holik.

"If there's a chance players won't ratify this, we're even less intelligent than people say we are," Holik told the New York Daily News. "I don't have to know the details. I just want to know when and where I'm putting my skates on."

Well, guys like London's Jason Williams don't want to skip the details, but he and others are on the same wave-length as Holik, if not the same pay level. About 200 players are expected to be on hand, with the other 500 voting electronically.

Enough is enough. They want to get back to work and start the season in early October. Many see a wider stage awaiting.

And they will be coming back at a wage increase and brighter career potential.

All players who are at or near the previous contract's $185,000 US minimum salary will benefit under the new deal. Williams is well above that floor, but says the new agreement's $450,000 minimum will mean a raise for him.

But it's more than that for the Detroit Red Wings' centre, 24, and other young players. Their scope has expanded.

Older, more highly paid players will be taking hits that can range from a 24-per-cent rollback on their wages or the ultimate hit, getting cut adrift to try and sell their talents in a down market.

In simple terms, NHL teams will be retaining the marquee players they can under the salary cap, while opening up more ice-time for promising young players. In essence, those players will be in a better position to dictate their worth, especially with a shorter term to unrestricted free agency.

Youth, in this case, has been served.

When you've been on a talented and veteran roster such as the Red Wings, you don't get to show much in a handful of shifts a game. Such players have been champing at the bit to show their wares and it looks as if this is the best chance they'll ever have.

"Down the road, you can become a go-to guy," noted Williams. "This gives you the opportunity to prove yourself to be a million-dollar player."

It is a sports fact that athletes will play for what the market dictates. Those of the superstar category want at least what everyone else of their ability is getting (or, in the case of more egocentric ones, a dollar more than next best-paid).

The dough becomes a trophy and it should never be forgotten the trophy was created and nurtured by the owners themselves.

How badly somebody at the top is hurt is open to question. Out in Colorado, Joe Sakic probably will somehow make do on his $6.364 million, down from $8.769 million. Getting cut to a mere $6 million is not likely to crimp Anaheim's Sergei Fedorov greatly.

Like society at large, it will be the middle class of NHL wage-earners who will bear the brunt.

But it's more than just the money now. The players are as weary as everybody else after a lockout that erased an entire season, tired of thinking about it, tired of being asked about it, tired of wondering where it's all going to end.

Coaches want to coach, referees want to referee and players definitely want to play.

"The game has suffered enough," Williams said before departing for today's vote in Toronto. "I'm sure some might vote against it. It would be a bit selfish, I think."

Assuredly, the players will vote to play hockey. Players with a lot of upside left will be voting for new careers, too.


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