NHL owners approve deal

several rule changes added

Penguins win draft lottery, right to select Crosby, 17

Hockey

July 23, 2005|By Helene Elliott | Helene Elliott,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW YORK - It was a foregone conclusion that the NHL would ratify the collective bargaining agreement players had grudgingly swallowed, and the 30 governors lined up yesterday to welcome more cost controls than they'd dreamed of when commissioner Gary Bettman locked out players last Sept. 15.

But with uncharacteristic boldness, the governors also took steps to energize a game that had withered long before labor woes dragged it out of sight and mind.

On the first day of the rest of the NHL's life, Bettman ended the 310-day lockout and reopened the league for business today. He also announced an array of rules changes that are intended to promote scoring and bring back the speed and skill that had too often been blunted by defensive tactics.

"I know the league's future is bright, and this will be to the benefit of the game," Bettman said at a news conference. "We had no choice but to get it right."

The six-year deal with the players association provides the right footing, he said, because clubs will become partners with one another through revenue sharing and players will have incentive to help the league and promote the game because payrolls will be tied to revenues.

The "long, dark days of the lockout" having ended, he said, "Let's drop the puck on a fresh start for the NHL."

The regular season will start Oct. 5 with every team playing and will include Sidney Crosby. The soon-to-be 18-year-old forward will have a lot to learn before he makes his NHL debut, but he found out he will have an excellent teacher.

Mario Lemieux's Pittsburgh Penguins were the biggest winners when they won the right to pick first in the draft next Saturday in Ottawa. And Crosby is the guy they want.

Bettman opened 28 envelopes, leaving just Pittsburgh and Anaheim with a chance to get the highly touted prospect. With the help of the four-leaf clover Penguins general manager Craig Patrick held in his hand, Pittsburgh skated off with Crosby.

The league will start up again today with a six-day period in which clubs can buy out existing contracts, and heat up on Aug. 1, when signing restricted and unrestricted free agents is permitted.

The deal, which had been ratified by players Thursday, caps payrolls at $39 million in the 2005-06 season including salaries, signing bonuses and performance bonuses, and sets a floor of $21.5 million.

Existing contracts will be cut by 24 percent, and no player will get more than 20 percent of the league cap figure in total compensation.

The promised crackdown on obstruction involves a philosophical change, not an amendment of rules. The approved changes include instituting a shootout to settle games that are tied after 60 minutes and five minutes of overtime, elimination of the red line for the purpose of two-line passes, moving the nets two feet closer to the end boards and reducing the mass of goaltenders' equipment.

At least in theory. The NHL has previously promised to punish obstruction and backed off as the season progressed, but it can't afford to repeat that mistake.

"In talking to fans, what we consistently heard is, `We want a better product on the ice,' " said Red Wings forward Brendan Shanahan, who helped shape the changes as a member of the NHL's competition committee.

"There's been a recognition that the fans want more. There's a commitment from players."

Bettman vowed the league will make a fervent commitment to its fans and will use technology to provide greater access to players during TV broadcasts.

Many teams have cut ticket prices to lure fans back, but the lockout's full impact won't be known for a while. Nor is it easy to declare a winner in the labor dispute that cost the league the 2004-05 season, even though the new agreement appears slanted toward owners. The same assessment was made about the last agreement, until agents and players found ways to drive salaries up faster than the league generated revenues.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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