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Tentative agreement reached to end 301-day NHL lockout

The National Hockey League owners and players reached tentative labor peace yesterday, effectively ending the longest work stoppage in the history of North American pro sports.

Pending ratification by both sides next week -- with the NHL Players Association voting Tuesday in Toronto and the league's Board of Governors expected to sign off on the 600-plus-page, six-year agreement Thursday in New York -- the league will get back to work for the first time since the 2003-04 season.

The owners went into the lockout -- which started Sept. 15 -- with the clear objective of tearing down the financial landscape, which they maintained they couldn't afford, and starting from scratch. From all accounts, they appear to have achieved that, beginning with a hard salary cap that tops out at $39 million per club.

Although both sides refrained from comment yesterday, acknowledging only that they had reached an agreement in principle, it has been widely reported that the players will receive 54 percent of revenues with a percentage (widely reportedly to be 15 percent) held in escrow. In addition, the maximum salary will likely be 20 percent of the team cap (or $7.4 million) with a minimum salary of $450,000.

For those players with years remaining on their contracts, a 24 percent rollback would be in effect, with teams having the opportunity to buy out high-priced talent.

A draft lottery is planned for a week from today, provided the collective bargaining agreement is ratified, with each of the 30 teams having a chance (weighted in favor of the teams with the worst records over the last few seasons) to land consensus top pick Sidney Crosby. The draft, originally scheduled for June 25 and 26 in Ottawa, will be held there July 30, but will be vastly scaled down, with perhaps only the first three rounds being held.

Not only will veterans' salaries be markedly lower, but entry-level pacts will be much more restricted than they've been since Bruins captain Joe Thornton came into the league as the No. 1 pick for the 1997-98 season.

According to the website of TSN (Canada's equivalent of ESPN), in exchange for the players' major concessions, it's expected that the age for unrestricted free agency will drop throughout the life of the CBA, with 31-year-olds being eligible this summer all the way to 27-year-olds with seven years of NHL experience becoming unrestricted in 2008.

Bruins president Harry Sinden, who along with owner Jeremy Jacobs and the rest of the team's front office declined to speak to reporters yesterday, prefers to hold off commenting until the ratification process is completed.

''This past year has been a difficult one for all of us and the Boston Bruins are pleased that this process is nearing a conclusion," said Sinden in a statement released by the team. ''At this time, we are not aware of any details of the document that will be presented to the NHL Board of Governors and NHL players for ratification. We expect to be fully briefed in the coming days by the league on the new agreement."

Bruins player representative Hal Gill said he will be in Toronto for the vote but doesn't yet have a complete grasp of what they will be facing.

''I don't know much about it," he said. ''I know the basic groundwork but there's a lot of other things they've talked about and so there are a lot of things I need to get filled in on before I tell you whether I love it or not. It's pretty complex. Our last CBA was a lot easier to understand, and it was very difficult to understand, so I'm sure this one is going to be a lot more complex."

Bruins goalie Andrew Raycroft has said he expects this deal to be worse than the one the owners offered the union in February, before the 2004-05 season was canceled.

''I would disagree with that," Gill said. ''We debated whether we should have linkage [to revenues], whether we should have a salary cap. If you look at it from the outside, you might say we're getting less of a deal. I've talked to guys like [former Bruin] Billy Guerin, who have been going through this [as a member of the NHLPA executive committee], I think they'd put that aside and said, 'We're going to lose on that end of negotiations so how can we take those, implement them, and then make something that's workable for us.' I think that's where all the stuff is that will make a difference for us."

Gill said a benefit of the new agreement is that players will have more input into the product than they ever have.

''They've been trying to get more player input into the league and how it's run and giving us more ability to work with the league," said Gill. ''With the salary cap and linkage, there are some things we're definitely conceding, but we're also having more input on how things are going. There's going to be a rules committee, which will be able to say where the game goes from here. In the past, I think we've kind of gone where the game has gone, where [the league has] taken us. There are a lot of other things that have to go into a collective bargaining agreement that we have to understand before we can say we've lost."

Ultimately, he said it's about getting back on the ice.

''I don't think it's win or lose, it's what has to get done," Gill said. ''If you ask me whether we won or lost, I'd rather get paid more money to do what we do and I'd rather have more say in what we do than any agreement we will ever have, but these are the guys who own the teams and these are the guys we work for in the end. I think we've negotiated a deal that has allowed us to be part of it. Yeah, we've lost on some sides, but it's something we have to work with. We have to look at it and see where it goes. I'm excited about getting back. I'm anxious to see what the nuts and bolts are. I assume if these guys have agreed it's a good deal and the best deal we're going to get. I assume it will be ratified but until we get there and talk about it, who knows?"

Those on the television end of the equation weighed in yesterday.

''We're obviously delighted that there's peace in our time," said Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports and Olympics. ''We're particularly delighted to be the NHL's partner as we move into what seemingly will be an exciting new year. We have hopes that some significant changes will be announced in the next two weeks to open up the game and bring out more of the beauty in a game that sort of has been slowed down at center ice, changes that open up the ice offensively."

NBC has a two-year deal with the NHL, plus an additional two-year option. The agreement calls for the partners to share revenue after production costs are covered. Beginning in January, NBC will carry seven regular-season games and six playoff games, all on Saturday afternoons. It also is scheduled to carry Games 3-7 of the Stanley Cup finals, a situation that might change with ESPN no longer a league broadcast partner.

The agreement was welcome news at NESN, which had hoped to make Bruins telecasts in high definition the centerpiece of last winter's programming, building on the Red Sox' championship season. Instead, the network had to count itself lucky to have rebroadcasts of key games from the first Sox world championship season in 86 years as replacement programming.

Even at ESPN, the reaction was conciliatory. In May, ESPN decided not to exercise its $60 million option to broadcast the league after the NHL refused to accept a lower rights fee or revenue-sharing agreement.

''We've had a very good, long-term relationship with the NHL and we're always open to listening to potential scenarios that have us both equally sharing any risk," said spokeswoman Diane Lamb.

Bill Griffith of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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