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ON HOCKEY

Period of recovery before league is at full strength

We'll have to save all the ''Bravo!" and ''Attaboy!" and ''Can you gimme an amen?" stuff for at least another week. There appears to be labor peace in the National Hockey League, but that's still very much up to the players, and whether they're willing to swallow the very large, bitter pill of a $39 million salary cap.

The players will vote on it Tuesday, and the bet here is that the 700-something union members will ratify it by a 2-1 margin. Of those on the ''Aye" side of the aisle, there will be plenty -- perhaps more than half -- who would love to shoot it down. Chris Chelios, for one, has made it clear that he'd like to shove it down Gary Bettman's valise.

But one season burned off the books, and at least $1 billion in salary lost in the carnage, will guide their consciences, and their wallets.

Ten months ago, and even before the start of the lockout on Sept. 15, the players said a cap was out of the question. Linkage? Heck, if you're not going to submit to a cap, then you're sure as heck not going to go for some contrived, byzantine formula that tethers your paycheck to something known as 54 percent of defined league revenues. Remember, not long ago players didn't believe they could take a pair of 50-cent pieces from the owners and cash 'em in for a dollar.

Based on details that have leaked out over the last 2-3 months, the players now will have to take the cap, the linkage, and a whole host of previously disgusting, out-of-the-question conditions -- including a severe hedgeclipping to the entry-level salary system that in recent years awarded first- and second-year players $4 million a year or more, once all salary and bonuses were piled up.

The deal the sides agreed to yesterday -- pending ratification by both sides -- is an entirely new way of doing business. It will take at least a couple of years to understand all the ramifications, big and small, and what it will mean for the owners, the players, the general managers, the agents, and even the fans. All we know now is that the owners achieved their goal -- true payroll cost certainty -- and the players, for all their never-gonna-do-it proclamations, surrendered their free-market payroll system for unrestricted free agency that will trigger as early as age 27 or 28 by the end of the six-year deal.

Warning: The above is an oversimplification, to say the least. The new collective bargaining agreement, some 600 pages thick, represents a lot more than a salary cap-for-free agency swap. But at its core, that is the wholesale quid pro quo in the new deal. The owners, some of whom seemed hellbent on pushing their individual team payrolls over $100 million, now know no one among them can spend close to even half that amount. The players, who previously couldn't select their place of employment until age 31, will get to the open market three or four years earlier.

Was it worth it? Well, it was worth it for the owners far more than the players, who steadfastly refused from the start to recognize the trend toward capped payrolls throughout the industry (now only Major League Baseball has yet to succumb).

All it took to get to yesterday's ''deal in principle" was the ugliest owner-player contract dispute in the history of North American pro sports. Already at the low end of the sports entertaiment hierarchy, especially in the United States, hockey was the least able to afford this kind of total meltdown.

Now, provided the deal is ratified, we begin to find out soon if the NHL, once one of the continent's truly great entertainment products, can: A. recapture its base of hard-core fans; B. attract new customers to arenas around the Original 30; C. develop TV deals that bring in real money; and D. avoid yet another one of these bloodbaths when this deal expires in 2011.

For those answers, and more, hang on to your helmet, hockey fans (those of you left standing). No matter what you hear, be it from the owners or players or media, no one knows if the curve to that recovery will be protracted, or even if it exists. As bad as the lockout has been, it actually could prove to be worse, which is why the players really have no option in the days ahead but to sign on the dotted line. It's now or never -- and for all we know, never moved into the rink when the 2004-05 season was canceled Feb. 16.

Look at what has happened to the sports industries of boxing and tennis in recent decades. Not a pretty picture. Both of those sports have seen their heydays come and go, for reasons vastly different than a good old-fashioned labor dispute.

In boxing's case, no one even bothers to chart a recovery curve anymore. As an industry, the hurt business is a week-to-week demolition derby, doors and fenders ripped away, an all-but-fried engine left sputtering.

Tennis is doing better -- just ask the runaway cash freight train that is Maria Sharapova -- but it's not what it was in the Borg-Connors-McEnroe-Navratilova days. No way. But it at least has the prospect of reviving if, say, 2-3 hot Americans come swashbuckling one day to Centre Court, Wimbledon. Not likely. But at least in the realm of possibility.

Harder still for hockey is the fact that, while the money issue was going haywire the last 10 years, the playing product was going south. It has been very hard to watch this money thing play out, but it has been excruciating to endure the way the game has been played for the better part of a decade.

The owners, while duly fretting over the economics and flat-lined franchise values, completely lost sight of on-ice quality control. They can blame the players for greed. They can blame the players for their obstinance and utter stupidity in refusing to negotiate. But the owners only have themselves to hold accountable for the lifeless play in their arenas, the dissolution of rivalries throughout the league, and, worst of the worst, the loss of passion in the product.

It was that passion that once set the game apart from all the other team sports on the planet -- at least in the eyes of a select few North American (read: non-futbol) sports fans. Not everyone here has always understood that. But in some ways, hockey was once our bullfighting, decried by the masses as barbaric, but ardently embraced by those who interpreted its ugliness as pure, down-to-the-bone passion.

Thankfully, all the bullfighting in the boardroom has come to an end. Time now to find out if both sides can find a way to put the real beast, the raging bull, back in the rink -- and if enough people still care enough to watch it.

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