It's a reluctant 'yes'

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:37 AM ET

To see Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow yesterday, holding their first joint news conference since the Salt Lake City Olympics of 2002, you would figure everything was lovey-dovey in the hockey world.

Guess again.

Speaking to a packed conference room of reporters at the Westin Harbour Castle, Bettman boasted that the proposed new collective bargaining agreement gives the league the forum to reach "spectacular" heights.

The commish conveniently failed to mention the NHL couldn't get any lower.

After becoming the first professional sports league in North America to wipe out an entire season due to a labour dispute, the ugly NHL lockout will conclude today after players voted about 88% in favour of accepting the new deal. But don't be fooled. They weren't all happy.

"Some guys voted "yes" while holding their noses," Bill Guerin, a member of the union's executive committee, said last night. "It's understandable. We had the best deal in pro sports. We're used to coming out ahead, but we didn't this time."

What they got was a salary cap of $39 million US they didn't want, a 24% across-the-board rollback of salaries, and questions of why an entire season was flushed away just to land a deal that, on the surface, appears to be heavily in favour of the owners.

There were some give-backs for the players. Their pension funds will receive a significant boost; players will be eligible for free agency after seven years of service in the league as of 2007-08; and the minimum salary has been hiked from $185,000 to $450,000.

Yet, many were shaking their heads, if not fists, at what they sacrificed. Only their desire to get back on the ice and save a sport waning in popularity made the deal tolerable. Some even conceded that the deal would be good for the league's future well-being.

"If we look at what we had and what we have now, are you disappointed some? Sure," Maple Leafs defenceman Ken Klee said. "But I think it's a deal that gives the owners and players a chance to grow the game and make it profitable for both sides."

"It's the best deal we were going to get now," Senators' Mike Fisher said. "A lot of other guys were happy with the deal and just happy that it's over and that we're playing hockey again."

Players did take issue with the acceptance by the PA to set up an escrow account that will pay back money from salaries to the league if expenses exceed 54% of revenues.

But Goodenow said reports that players would have to pay 15% of their salaries into the escrow accounts were erroneous.

"(Either way), no one likes to give money back to the owners," Anaheim goalie J.S. Giguere said.

Insisting he would remain in his post as union head, Goodenow, whose future was a hot topic recently, was asked if he also would accept a 24% salary rollback.

"We haven't really, frankly, talked about that," said Goodenow, whose salary has been reported at about $2.5 million.

A combustible situation boiled over during a union meeting on Wednesday when pending Leafs free agent Tie Domi fired verbal shots at L.A. Kings' Sean Avery, who had been critical of Goodenow in the media.

"It's easy to knock things, especially when things are getting settled," Domi said of Avery.

So, what happens now?

After the owners ratify the deal today in New York, there will be a draft lottery which will land some lucky team Sidney Crosby, the brightest young prospect to come along in years.

Governors today also will ratify rule changes intended to open up the game, a long-overdue overhaul the sport needs. Expect things such as no-touch icing, tag-up offsides and modified goalie equipment.

Then, tomorrow, the 30 teams will open for business as the league officially relaunches, kicking off a frantic period in which more than 400 free agents will attempt to find homes.

The moral of this sad story?

According to the greatest player to ever lace up a pair of blades, the focus must now be on the future, not the past.

"I think everyone understands," Wayne Gretzky said, "it's time to go back and play."


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