NEW YORK – Open the arenas, break out the skates and fire up the Zamboni. The NHL (search) is back. After losing an entire season to a lockout, players and owners ended an all-night bargaining session Wednesday by reaching their goal: a tentative deal, expected to include a salary cap, that virtually ensures hockey will return this fall.
The six-year pact still needs to be ratified by both sides. The players' association has scheduled a members meeting in Toronto next week, while the NHL board of governors plans to gather next Thursday in New York for a vote.
"It's a new day," Philadelphia Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock said. "It's pretty exciting."
And about time.
"At the end of the day everybody lost," said Wayne Gretzky (search), the NHL's career scoring leader and the managing partner of the Phoenix Coyotes. "We almost crippled our industry. It was very disappointing what happened."
The last round of negotiations began Tuesday at noon and culminated around noon Wednesday with a joint news release announcing the deal.
Though details won't be released until both sides approve it, a salary cap would be something players' union executive director Bob Goodenow never wanted.
Once everyone signs off on the deal, the league can begin the difficult task of gaining public support. No matter who won or lost, the fight cost the NHL a full season.
"To be totally honest, I really don't care what the deal is anymore. All I care about is getting the game back on the ice," Flyers star Jeremy Roenick (search) said in a telephone interview during a celebrity golf event in Nevada.
"I think the deal is not great for the players. It is definitely an owner-friendly deal. For the last 10 years, the players have made a lot of money and now we are in a position where everybody is going to make money," he said. "Unfortunately, it had to take a whole year to get to a point where we could have been last year."
This lockout was worse than any in sports, dwarfing the one that cut the 1994-95 hockey season nearly in half and resulted in the agreement that expired last September.
In February, commissioner Gary Bettman canceled the season, making the NHL the first North American sports league to lose a year because of a labor dispute.
"I don't want to get to the relief point yet until everything's finalized," said Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford, a former goalie. "What we went through was necessary. We had to get some controls on our business and certainly I'm hoping that's what this new agreement does."
While the NHL seems to have gotten what it wanted, there is no way to measure the damage done to a sport that already was the least popular of the four major leagues in the United States.
"That's going to be our next big step — winning back the fans," said Nashville Predators forward Jim McKenzie, a 15-year NHL veteran. "We'll have our work cut out for us."
If all goes according to plan, a scaled-down draft is expected to be held later this month and training camps will open in September from Vancouver to Miami. NHL games will be back on the schedule in October.
"It'll be a great thing to get the game back up," Columbus Blue Jackets coach Gerard Gallant said.
Selling the sport might take a while longer.
During the lockout, disgruntled Buffalo fan Doug Sitler sold more than 15,000 magnetic car ribbons that read: "I need my hockey fix(ed)."
"I think it's going to take a little bit of time for people to get back in the swing of things," he said. "But sports fans are pretty fickle. They have short memories. They really do."
It took all night and then some for the final round of negotiations to produce an agreement.
The sides met for 10 straight days in New York, and it became clear Wednesday morning — the 301st day of the lockout — that they weren't going to leave the room without an agreement.
The expected salary cap likely will have a ceiling of $39 million and a minimum around $22 million.
Player salaries will not exceed 54 percent of league-wide revenues, expected to be around $1.8 billion. Players will also put money into escrow, and after each season that will be used to balance out the set percentage based on actual revenues.
Bettman warned in February that offers the union passed up were better than any it would see once a year of hockey was lost.
Just days before the season was wiped out, the players' association said for the first time it would accept a salary cap if the league dropped its desire to link player costs to revenues.
That started a wild week that included the cancellation of the season Feb. 16 and a false hope three days later that it would be saved. Even Gretzky and Mario Lemieux — superstars turned executives — couldn't resurrect it during an emergency bargaining session in New York.
Negotiations resumed in mid-March.
Bettman promised "cost certainty" in the form of a hard salary cap to the owners and he has gotten it.
The landscape of the NHL will be quite different than it was in June 2004 when the Tampa Bay Lightning skated off with the Stanley Cup in the league's last game before the lockout. For the first time since a flu epidemic in 1919, there was no Stanley Cup champion in 2005.
When the league relaunches in the fall, it will do so with a new salary structure that keeps high-spending teams such as Detroit, Toronto, Philadelphia and the New York Rangers in check.
The first order of business after ratification will be to get a majority of the players signed. The belief is that last season's contracts will be wiped from the books, leaving many players without deals.
Those who are still under contract will have their salaries reduced by 24 percent, a concept first proposed by the union last December. Some high-priced players will also be on the market as teams pare payrolls to get down to the cap.
Even with the salary rollback, nine teams would've been over the cap based on payrolls at the end of the 2003-04 season.
There will also be rules changes, some that could include the size of goaltender equipment to a shootout to eliminate tie games.
"Our focus right now, from the coaches standpoint, is we're waiting to see what our roster is going to look like and what the playing rules are going to look like," Hitchcock said.
The draft was supposed to be held last month in Ottawa, and the Canadian capital might get to host the event soon.
Junior hockey phenom Sidney Crosby is the consensus choice to be the No. 1 pick. Where he goes will be determined by a weighted draft lottery that will give each team some opportunity to snag him.
NBC will start its two-year television deal a year late, but the NHL still needs to find a cable partner.
"We are thrilled for the fans that hockey is returning to the ice, and we're delighted to be the network television partner of the NHL as it moves into what I believe will be an exciting new era," NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol said.
The deal finally came down during sport's biggest lull of the year — the baseball All-Star break.
The NHL probably won't hold such an event until 2007 as next year's All-Star game is expected to be replaced by an Olympic break, allowing for players to represent their countries in Turin, Italy.