The NHL season was saved Wednesday when players gave in to a management ultimatum and sacrificed some freedom to play hockey again.
Leaders of the NHL Players Association accepted the owners’ take-it-or-else proposal, effectively ending the 103-day lockout and pulling off the biggest save in hockey history.
Had they rejected the 6-year contract, the NHL would have gone major-league baseball one worse by becoming the first sports league to shut down an entire season in a labor dispute.
“Are we happy about the scars that have been created for the game of hockey?” asked union president Mike Gartner. “Are we happy about losing millions of dollars? Are we happy the relations between owners and players have been severely hindered?
“No, we’re not happy about that. But we’re happy that hockey is hopefully going to be played very soon.”
The NHLPA executive committee sent the contract to the union’s 700-plus members for ratification by management’s noon Friday deadline. And though it is expected to receive the necessary 51 percent approval, “There will be a lot of guys with discontent,” said former Spokane Chiefs enforcer Mick Vukota, now with the New York Islanders.
“There have been hard-liners in our union who have stepped aside for the good of the game,” Vukota said. “Some relationships between players and owners were in bad shape even before this started.”
Although they managed to sidestep the salary cap and payroll tax favored by the owners, the players made most of the concessions during three months of often nasty negotiations.
Nevertheless, most seemed happy that they’ll be practicing Friday afternoon for the first time since owners announced Sept. 30 that the lockout would begin the next day.
“It’s our livelihood. This is what most of the guys have done their whole lives. All we know is hockey,” said Eric Weinrich of the Chicago Blackhawks. “We want to play hockey because that’s what hockey players do.”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who Tuesday night delivered the owners’ take-it-or-leave-it offer to union head Bob Goodenow, said the season would start late next week, possibly Friday.
The regular season, probably 48 games, will be followed by four bestof-7 playoff rounds. The NHL normally plays an 84-game schedule, and most owners said as recently as this week that any season shorter than 50 games wouldn’t be “legitimate.”
In the end, the owners felt losing 36 games from this season’s schedule was a small price to take back some of the control they lost in settling the 10-day strike before the 1992 playoffs.
“I think players realized that something had to change,” said Edmonton general manager Glen Sather, who had to gut a championship team that once included the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Jari Kurri to keep Oilers owner Peter Pocklington in business.
“The deal the union had been working under was better than terrific - so good that the league couldn’t survive,” Sather said. “That’s why we did what had to do in Edmonton. Now we can survive.”
Bettman, who spoke briefly, didn’t answer questions from the media and had to be asked by photographers to produce a smile, said he was “thrilled that this is over.”
“It was important that the league come together with the players … to take this league to the great heights that it can come to,” he said. “I retain the optimism that I’ve always had for the future of this sport.”
Bettman said some “transitional issues” - more minor but still essential to a final agreement - had to be completed.
Goodenow also had little to say, answering only a few questions before returning to NHLPA headquarters in Toronto.
“This has been a long, difficult process, one that has come to a conclusion that both sides can live with,” he said. “It’s important that we get the focus where it belongs - the competition.”
The NHL only hopes its short season will be as competitive as the negotiations were.
The lockout began over the owners’ demand for a cap on players’ salaries, something the union refused to consider.
It finally came down to player freedom. The NHL players went into the talks as the only one of the major pro sports without any form of unrestricted free agency. They fell short of getting what they wanted.
The owners didn’t want players to become unrestricted free agents until after players turned 32 years old. The players at first wanted it at 28, but came up to 30 last week.
The final contract gave players free agency at 32 in the first three years and at 31 in the last three. But because either side has the right to scrap the agreement after the 1997-98 season, there might be only one year in which 31-year-olds have complete freedom.
“I still have mixed feelings,” said Bob Corkum, player representative of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. “A lot of guys will be hurt. At the same time, something had to be done. We didn’t think it was worth missing a season for it.”
Perhaps the owners’ best new wage-control system will be the rookie salary cap, $850,000 in the first year of the agreement. By ending the run of multimillion-dollar rookie contracts, owners should be able to slow a trend that has seen salaries triple in the last three years.
It was a major concession for players, who for months said they would never accept such a cap.
Owners also negotiated the right to walk away from three salary arbitration rulings of at least $550,000 over each two-year period.