STATELINE - After 301 tumultuous days of bickering, a declining fan base and an entire season being canceled, the National Hockey League and the players' union reached a tentative deal Wednesday that ensures hockey will return to the ice this fall.
The six-year agreement still needs to be ratified by both sides. A players' association meeting is scheduled for next week in Toronto, while the NHL board of governors is scheduled to meet next Thursday in New York City for a vote. Both parties, though, are expected to agree on the new deal.
"It doesn't matter who wins and loses at this point because, as players and owners, we're all losers in the way we've lost a year," said eight-time NHL All-Star Jeremy Roenick of the Philadelphia Flyers Wednesday at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course. "A lightweight can't beat a heavyweight when the heavyweight really wants to kick your ass. The players' association was fighting against a huge animal that was not going to be beaten.
"Granted, I understand and I've never held a grudge against the owners for locking us out. I realize that throughout a long period they've lost a lot of money. It's unfortunate it had to come to the point where it is."
Roenick's sentiment stems from the new deal's finer points, which is highlighted by an expected salary cap that will likely have a ceiling of $39 million and a minimum of around $22 million. It will also ensure player salaries will not exceed 54 percent of league-wide revenues, expected to be around $1.8 billion.
Players will also put money into escrow, and after each season, that will be used to balance out the set percentage based on actual revenues. When compared to previous deals turned down by the union earlier this year, this new deal is more favorable to the owners.
But NHL commissioner Gary Bettman warned in February that any offers the union passed up were better than any it would see if a season of hockey was lost.
Such was the reaction from the players at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course, where many of hockey's current and past stars were practicing for this week's American Century Championship.
"It's kind of shame that it happened," said three-time NHL All-Star Pierre Larouche, who won two Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens in the 1970s. "You take away another year and it would've been a big blow to the game. I'm sure one side is unhappy with the result. But when you paint yourself in corners, sometimes you end up getting bad deals."
Grant Fuhr, who won four Stanley Cups in the 1980s with the Edmonton Oilers, said the most important thing is that there will be a 2005-06 NHL season. He said the sport has certainly been damaged and only a commitment by both owners and players to rejuvenate a disgruntled fan base will change that trend.
"It's going to take some time," said Fuhr, who is only one of six goalies to win more than 400 regular season games. "They're going to have to build up the trust again with the fans. Unfortunately, anytime you have a lockout or a strike, the sport has to do some work to get fans back."
However, not all fans are ecstatic about the return of the NHL.
"I've got to admit, I didn't miss it," said Joe Hartman, a Philadelphia insurance adjuster and former collegiate hockey player.
For the fans that didn't miss hockey, the new deal appears to include rule changes that could bring them back, such as the size of a goalie's equipment or a shootout to eliminate tie games. Some players have even encouraged line changes to reduce offside calls, which would create higher-scoring games.
Official details won't be released until both sides approve the deal next week.
"We could've signed this deal last September and played, but the owners were in it for the long haul," said Roenick, who has been one of the more outspoken players on the lockout. "I realized that last February when I got in trouble for saying we should've signed (then). Now we got to settle for something that's a lot less.
"But, like I said, it's not about who wins and loses. It's about everybody (being) on a more even playing surface and we've got to make it more fun for the fans to come watch. I could see the expression on the people's faces as I went around the golf course. The fans of the game were like 'When are we going to get it done?' Well, I told them, 'We got it done today.' And you saw their face light up. I was excited because I saw the excitement on the fan."
- The Associated Press contributed to this story.