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NHL, players reportedly closing in on deal

Agreement to end lockout could come as soon as late in the week
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

As the NHL lockout nears its 300th day, signs are pointing to an end to the labor dispute that wiped out the 2004-05 season. The league and players' association are close to reaching an agreement in principle -- barring any last-minute snags -- and an announcement could come late this week or early next week, according to league sources.

In recent days, Anaheim and Chicago named new general managers. Toronto, Nashville, Ottawa and Dallas signed their coaches to contract extensions. The Senators made additions to their training staff, and the Florida Panthers have plans to plant lawn signs around town that read, "There's a cold front moving in," according to the Sun-Sentinel.

Another indication teams are preparing for an on-time start to next season in October: Clubs have lifted hiring freezes and have begun adding sales and game night staff. Vancouver has more than a dozen jobs advertised on its Web site. The Washington Capitals, meantime, recently have posted two job openings -- for a ticket sales account executive and coordinator of guest services -- on its Web site.

The negotiating teams have been working 15-hour days in recent weeks and were back at the table Monday morning in New York. Negotiating on a holiday was seen as yet another sign the sides are committed to striking a deal in the coming days. Once that happens, the new collective bargaining agreement, which could be four times as long as the expired 150-page document, would then go to the players and owners for ratification votes.

The negotiators have been tight-lipped about the details of the new CBA, but recent reports suggest the centerpiece of the new six-year contract will indeed be the hard salary cap linked to league-wide revenue that Commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners have demanded.

The ceiling will be set around $39 million, with a floor of about $24 million. The upper limit could grow if league revenue increases.

"The deal is virtually done and it's not going to be just revolutionary for the NHL, it will be a new chapter in collective bargaining agreements for all sports because it will most closely tie together the fortunes of the owners and the players," said Stan Kasten, former president of the Atlanta Thrashers, Hawks and Braves.

The NHL also is reportedly preparing to unveil a new logo and marketing slogan, "It's a Whole New Game."

That figures to be accurate, considering the rule changes that are expected to be part of the new deal. Among the major changes that could be included: elimination of the center ice redline, tag-up offside, smaller goaltending equipment and pushing back the goal line. All of the changes are aimed at increasing offense.

Once an agreement is signed, the league will move swiftly with its plans for a draft lottery and entry draft. The lottery process remains unclear but is of considerable interest to the league's general managers because of this year's prize: junior hockey phenom Sidney Crosby, whose skills have been likened to Wayne Gretzky's.

The Crosby Sweepstakes will be only part of the excitement for fans. A free agent frenzy, unlike any in league history, will begin upon ratification. Washington, like many teams, has only a handful of players under contract for next season and will be in the market to add several players.