Ice Circus

Ending the lockout? That was easy. Now the NHL must master a massive new CBA, sign legions of free agents and learn some new playing rules--all in two months
July 24, 2005

The National Hockey League's 301-day labor battle finally ended last week, and the truce will be governed by a tome no more suitable for summer reading than War and Peace. The sport's new economic system--a 24% across-the-board salary rollback; a team salary cap of $39 million; an individual cap that keeps a player from earning more than 20% of his team's payroll; a linkage between salaries and revenue is on a laundry list of items that, except for liberalized free agency and a bump in the minimum salary, set the players back a decade--has been delineated in a document of nearly 600 pages, roughly six times longer than the old one.

When that CBA, which ended the 1994-95 lockout, was disseminated, Kent Hughes, then new to the agent business, was instructed by his boss to study it for six weeks, looking for any ambiguities they might exploit to help their clients. This time, Hughes, who represents Tampa Bay Lightning star Vincent Lecavalier, and his peers will have about 20 minutes to digest it all after the deal is ratified by the Players Association. (Agents won't see the document until then.) The rank and file are expected to vote this Thursday or Friday. (Or maybe that is the rankled and file, given the simmering resentment against union leaders for volunteering for that 24% haircut.) A week after that, they can start signing new deals. "There has never been anything like this in any sport at any time," agent Don Meehan said. "A new landscape. A new CBA. And when players report to training camp [in September], they will have to absorb some new rules. This will be chaotic."

At least the general managers were given a running start. The NHL began rotating teams into New York City last Friday for three-hour tutorials with chief legal officer Bill Daly. Of course that was like trying to master Ulysses in an afternoon; even if you've read it, that doesn't mean you get it. The NHL's most coveted free agent suddenly was not Peter Forsberg but Evelyn Wood.

The next seven weeks will be the most baffling if oddly exhilarating off-season for a league that, unless it quickly finds its way, is doomed to be a relic of the 20th century. The league lost ESPN as a broadcast partner during the lockout, but maybe it can make a deal with TLC: The NHL, Trading Places. This is the timetable. The gun goes off after ratification, at which point the NHL will hold a draft lottery and announce long-anticipated rule changes designed to improve goal-scoring totals so low that they resemble mortgage rates. (Most important, the red line is expected to be eliminated.) Teams then will be allowed to re-sign their own free agents, a monumental task since only about one third leaguewide are under contract. Thanks to the new CBA, they can also start squeezing under the cap by jettisoning players under contract with buyouts.

Then, in Ottawa on July 30 in an exercise closed to the public--now that's entertainment!--the NHL will hold a draft and introduce phenom Sidney Crosby as the No. 1 choice of the lucky lottery winner. Two days later the free-agent signing period will begin. You think 'twas a brave man who ate the first oyster? How about the first player who signs in a scarcely knowable market?

Certain teams seem better prepared for this moment than others. The often befuddled Chicago Blackhawks, lurking in the weeds when not sitting near the cellar, have a solid young nucleus and cap room to burn. But the Detroit Red Wings have committed $38.1 million to 16 players, a group that doesn't include their best young ones, center Pavel Datsyuk and leftwinger Henrik Zetterberg. The Colorado Avalanche has $21.3 million tied up in 10 players, limiting its ability to re-sign high-end free agents Forsberg and Adam Foote. The Toronto Maple Leafs, with eight players under contract at $27.1 million, have to make calls on a plethora of marquee veterans, including Brian Leetch, Alex Mogilny and Gary Roberts. Ultimately many bought-out players will be paid a lot of money not to play, an improvement over recent months, when they were not paid to do the same thing.

There are no guarantees anyone other than puckheads will line the route to watch the NHL's great race. The devastation of a lost season could turn this CBA into a Pyrrhic victory for the owners, who seized a larger chunk of the revenue while gutting affection for their game. Meanwhile, the NHL's relaunch is being orchestrated by the same commissioner, Gary Bettman. The new, exciting game will be coached (and overcoached) by mostly the same men. And the same referees will still have the whistles.

Chaos? Sure. A whole new game? Prove it.

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Conte's and Anderson's pleas mean implicated athletes are in the clear. --'ROID TO NOWHERE, PAGE 22


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