As spring gives way to summer, and most folks turn their attention to the garden, the barbeque and the lost golf ball, a sense of giddy optimism sweeps the hockey world. An end to the NHL lockout is in sight.
The tone began to change in April, when the league abandoned the suicidal, union-busting tactic of hiring replacement players for next season. Since then, the big brains of the league and Players' Association have resolved several key issues.
At least, that's what the sports reporters tell us. Most media reports quote unnamed sources, which always raises a credibility issue. But in this case the reports are widespread, and the official denials either weak or non-existent. So based on the media consensus, here's what we know so far about the next NHL collective bargaining agreement. It's worth checking out, because this league is in for a major overhaul.
- There will be a salary cap. Most estimates place it somewhere between $35-$39 million per team next season, rising in subsequent years if league revenues increase. Otherwise, details are sketchy. Nobody has a grip on how the system will work.
- The players are taking a huge pay cut. The value of all existing contracts will be rolled back by 24-per-cent. This is a concession offered by the players in December, and it remains on the table.
- Free agents will be younger. The new age for unrestricted free agency might be 30. Some say the UFA age will work its way down to 27 over the life of the agreement. Under the old free agent system, players did not qualify for the open market until the age of 31.
- Young players will make less money. Under the old deal, a player's salary was restricted during his first three years in the NHL, but there was almost no limit on bonus money. The new "entry-level" salary cap will be extended to four years, and will be much more restrictive, possibly as low as $850,000 per year, all bonuses included.
- NHL players will return to the Olympics in 2006. This is reported as a win for the players, as the league is not enthusiastic about shutting down for two weeks in mid-season.
- The goalies will be smaller. A report in the Toronto Sun says orders for tapered pads and gloves have already been placed. This is not strictly a collective bargaining issue, more of a side deal between the NHL and NHLPA. It suggests that the new collective agreement could include a joint player-management committee to handle rule changes and other on-ice issues.
- There will be a drug testing program of some sort.
- The deal should be done by early July, after which the league will cobble together the NHL Entry Draft. Because there are no final standings from 2004-05, the draft order will be determined by a weighted lottery, with the worst teams most likely to land the top picks. The number-one pick, of course, will be none other than Mr. Sid.
- The new NHL collective bargaining agreement will be the size of a metropolitan phone book.