As good as it gets for Leafs duo

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:06 AM ET

Darcy Tucker and Wade Belak sound nothing like the union firebrands of last autumn, when they were front and centre among vocal Maple Leafs denouncing a salary cap.

But with their army beaten by the owners at the negotiating table and by fans in the court of public opinion, neither would dump on the leadership of the NHL Players' Association.

"It's frustrating, because we took a hard stand on a cap, lost a season and wound up taking a cap anyway," Belak said yesterday. "If we'd started out negotiating a cap, we'd have been playing by Christmas. We gambled and unfortunately, the owners won.

"But it's hard for me to say I was brainwashed (a charge Los Angeles Kings' Sean Avery made about union executive director Bob Goodenow this week). Once the lockout started, I went to England and only stayed in touch with Bob through the union website."

Tucker was reluctant to tar the union's bargaining committee of players and lawyers.

"Futile or not, our executive took an entire summer to work on a deal for more than 600 players and the next generation to come," Tucker said. "I don't envy them. I know I couldn't have done it. I personally think the players bent over backwards to make this (new collective bargaining agreement) happen, whether the people believe it or not."

Tucker was as stunned as anyone during the winter, when Goodenow did an about-face and accepted a cap to try and salvage half a season.That ploy, and a 24% rollback in contracts, failed to shake commissioner Gary Bettman's resolve and players such as Tucker were out seven figures.

"Were we brainwashed? That's harsh," Tucker said. "But I guess everyone is entitled to their opinion."

Tucker, who will see his 2005-06 salary pared down $504,000 US to $1.569 million, is one of just eight Leafs under contract, part of an overall payroll standing presently at about $27 million. Belak's $1-million deal has elapsed.

"I see Bob wanted to protect us," Belak said. "He took a stand for us, because at first it looked like a cap would hurt the lower end guys like me. But it's going to wind up affecting the $9-million men more. You won't see those big deals again.

"A cap will be hard for players to swallow at first, but hopefully, this will be what the game needs to grow and keep teams operating."

If the cap's ceiling comes in between $36 million and $39 million per team as projected, the Leafs will have to jettison some costly players and be judicious about who they sign. It will all make for a turbulent August and September.

"Hopefully, we can build a team out of it and stay competitive as we have the past five or six years," Tucker said. "I'm working out and looking forward to playing for the fans again."

The new CBA is the perfect birthday gift for Leafs' general manager John Ferguson, who turned 38 on Thursday. Some assembly is required, but enough details have come out this past week for the GM to get a good handle on the finished product.

"Bottom line, it's going to be an exciting time," Ferguson said. "I'm hearing the same things you're hearing (about the CBA's makeup). Whatever it looks like, we'll be ready."

Talks will continue through the weekend after five days of negotiations in New York as the two sides inch closer to a collective bargaining agreement. A deal could be reached as soon as this weekend but more likely early next week.


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