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Saturday, February 19, 2005

NHL season not quite iced

Report: Union, league have tentative deal; sides to meet today

February 19, 2005

BY HELENE ST. JAMES
FREE PRESS SPORTS WRITER


Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman might have a future as a visionary.

The NHL season -- left for dead three days ago -- might have new life, just as Yzerman predicted when it was canceled.

The league and its union have scheduled a meeting for today in New York amid reports that the sides have agreed in principle to a deal. If they reach a final agreement, the NHL likely would play a 28-game season, starting on or around March 1.

The apparent breakthrough comes after months of stalling, glimmers of hope, gloom and finally commissioner Gary Bettman's announcement Wednesday that the season would be canceled. It was supposed to have started in October.

No major sports league in North America had ever called off an entire season because of a labor dispute. The Stanley Cup -- one of the most revered trophies in sports -- seemed unlikely to be awarded for only the second time since 1893.

Player salaries were the major sticking point in negotiations, but the Hockey News reported Friday that the sides had agreed on a salary cap of $45 million per team.

When asked if there was any way a deal wouldn't get completed, a player close to the talks told the Hockey News: "Not that I can see. I couldn't possibly imagine the idea that somebody is going to try to make a name for themselves in the last minute here."

The union, however, denied the report that the sides had agreed to a $45-million cap. An NHLPA spokesman told the Associated Press in an e-mail that the report was "absolutely false."

The league's last offer had been for a $42.5 million salary cap; the union had called for $49 million, with a flexible ceiling. With 30 teams in the league, the difference amounted to at least $195 million.

The Red Wings' payroll was about $78 million last season and would have been about $60 million this season without the lockout. With a 24-percent rollback proposed by the union, the payroll would be $43 million if the season started today. That doesn't include contracts for unsigned restricted free agent Pavel Datsyuk and unrestricted free agents Chris Chelios and Matheiu Schneider.

Wings general manager Ken Holland welcomed the resumption in negotiations.

"I think anytime they're meeting it's good news," he said. "I'm hopeful. They made a lot of progress early in the week. Hopefully, they build off that and find a solution."

Asked if he were more optimistic than he has been since the lockout began five months ago, Holland said: "It's such a roller coaster of emotions that until I see the leaders announce they've got a deal, I'll sit back and wait."

The Wings would have to work fast to work out the logistics of a season, but Holland said: "I'm hoping to have that problem."

The NHL Players' Association said the league had requested today's meeting. More than one outlet reported that Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were involved in getting talks restarted. Gretzky acknowledged that he had talked to Lemieux, but said they hadn't tried to restart negotiations.

Soon after Bettman canceled the season, Yzerman said he thought the sides could reverse course if they acted reasonably soon. Saturday's meeting will come three days after Bettman's announcement.

Read the rest.

They're playing with my emotions. . .

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