PHILADELPHIA – After losing the 2004-05 season to a bitter, 301-day lockout, the National Hockey League said Wednesday that it is ready to return to business.

The NHL and its Players’ Association announced an agreement in principle on the terms of a new collective bargaining agreement that is expected to span six years and include a salary cap.

If the deal is ratified by NHLPA members and the league’s Board of Governors – that could come sometime next week when the players meet in Toronto and the owners convene in New York – the league would be back on the ice this fall.

Details of the agreement will not be released until it is ratified. The players widely had opposed the implementation of a salary cap. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had canceled the season in February. That made the NHL the first sports league in North America to lose a year because of a labor dispute.

“I’m pleased that it is most likely over,” Flyers captain Keith Primeau said Wednesday from Canada. “It’s important that we begin to try to repair some of the damage, some of the bridges we have begun to burn and really try to salvage what we can of our game.”

There is plenty to salvage.

“At the end of the day, everybody lost,” Wayne Gretzky, the NHL’s career scoring leader and managing partner of the Phoenix Coyotes told the Associated Press. “We almost crippled our industry. It was very disappointing what happened.”

Two sources familiar with the agreement indicated Wednesday that the salary cap would extend from a low of $21.5 million to a high of $39 million, not including benefits.

One of the sources indicated that players would become free agents at age 30 starting this year and age 27 by the final three years of the deal. Currently the age is 31. Players who are seven-year professionals may also become free agents sooner, the source said.

Additionally, it is expected that all existing contracts will be rolled back 24 percent.

The league’s minimum salary is expected to rise to approximately $450,000; the old minimum was $175,000.

Players salaries league-wide are not expected to exceed 54 percent of revenues. Sweeping rule changes that would place a greater emphasis on scoring also are expected to be implemented.

It also is expected that NHL players will be permitted to compete in the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, in February. A reduced version of the NHL draft is expected to take place later this month.

Regardless of what the final details are, Flyers center Roenick said he is happy to get back on the ice.

“I think the deal is not great for the players,” Roenick said Wednesday night in phone conversation from Lake Tahoe, Nev., where he is participating in a celebrity golf tournament.

“I think it is an owner-friendly deal. For the last 10 years the players made a lot of money. But now we are in a position where everyone is going to make a lot of money.”

Roenick said he felt the players could have had a better deal in February.

“I took a lot of heat – and others took a lot of heat, and it was a little unjust,” he said. “But we don’t look so dumb now.”

So can the game of hockey, which has been plagued by low television ratings, a meager national TV contract and general fan apathy, recover from the biggest black eye in the sport’s history?

“We have to recover,” Primeau said. “Everybody has to put their best foot forward. It will be a partnership because everybody is in this together.”

A league source confirmed that the NHL has been working on a schedule for the coming season and that it is expected to be released soon after the collective bargaining agreement is ratified. Teams also are expected to announce ticket policies.

If the pact is ratified, players would report to training camp around their customary starting time, the middle of September. That momen’t can’t come soon enough for Flyers general manager Bob Clarke, who called the tentative agreement, which came after 10 mostly gloomy months, “a relief.”

“Now we can at least work and have something positive,” Clarke said. “It was a negative year for owners, front-office workers, players, fans and others. Now we can stop and start looking forward to hockey.”

Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock said he felt as if “the weight of the world has been lifted off our shoulders.”

“I did a lot of things that were interesting, but there is no place like home,” Hitchcock said. “And no place like having your own team to work around.”

Teams have been warned that they would be fined heavily for revealing information on the agreement, and even players are unaware of the final details.

Primeau was one of an estimated 40 players on a conference call with the NHLPA after the tentative agreement was finalized.

“My greatest fear was that this was going to extend another season,” Primeau said.

The widely held perception is that the owners received the better part of the deal. But Flyers goalie – and player representative – Robert Esche said it’s time for both sides to begin working together to rebuild the game.

“I hope everybody backs the program and I’m for it,” Esche said. “It will add cost certainty to the owners and the players will still make a good living.”

Esche, who lives in upstate New York, said after the deal is ratified, he will head to the Philadelphia area to start working out.

“I’m so happy right now,” Esche said. “I can’t wait to get started.”

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