TORONTO (AP) – The road leading to the Hockey Hall of Fame here is plastered with posters proclaiming, “It’s Our Game. Play On!”

The NHL is getting close to doing just that.

At the conclusion of a two-day players’ association meeting that began Wednesday, union members will cast ballots in a ratification vote that will determine if the NHL lockout is really at its end.

The discussion of the collective bargaining agreement, tentatively reached last week, began in earnest around dinnertime Wednesday and was expected to continue for several hours into the night.

It was to pick up again this morning before the players vote, and the fate of next season becomes known.

Fans who sought autographs in the hotel lobby from heroes they’ve missed for a year will have to wait a little bit longer for some good news.

It looks like it’s coming.

“We had to stand up for what we thought we could get and that’s the nature of the business. Now we have to move on,” St. Louis Blues forward Doug Weight said.

Surely many of the 700-plus players will voice displeasure over the deal they have heard about for some time but will finally see on paper. Those not in attendance will be able to vote via the Internet.

Players’ association executive director Bob Goodenow went into this labor fight with the league vowing not to take a salary cap or have player compensation linked to league-wide revenues.

By all accounts, this deal contains both.

“As far as I’m concerned, he’s done what we asked him to do,” said Carolina Hurricanes forward Jeff O’Neill, one of several hundred players to attend the meeting. “He’s led us and I think he’s done the right things.

“Maybe as a group we underestimated how strong the owners were going to be. But we were all behind Bob and we were all in this together. For people to judge whether we won or lost this deal I think is ridiculous.

“We all got in this together and then some guys started piping off and maybe showed a few cracks in us as a group. But we’re still in this together now.”

Some players have not been so supportive of Goodenow. In the end, everyone lost a year’s salary, and the union’s executive committee has signed off on a deal that appears to be owner-friendly.

No doubt, the long night and day of internal talks will bring out opposing opinions. The discussions will probably be loud and somewhat animated, too.

After all, these are hockey players.

“When this is done, we’re all going to be on the same side I hope,” Weight said. “It’s OK to have questions and it’s OK to be heated about them. This is our livelihood.”

That is why this vote is so crucial.

Some of those entrusted to negotiate a deal for the players are fellow players that make up the executive committee – headed by president Trevor Linden of the Vancouver Canucks.

It might not be the deal they wanted, but this is the one that will get them back on the ice in the fall.

Hockey loyalty stretches beyond the 30 NHL rinks.

“You’re not going to please everyone all the time, it’s going to be good for some and bad for others, but it’s a deal we have to live with at this stage,” St. Louis defenseman Chris Pronger said.

“(The executive committee) has been locked in a room for the last 12 weeks hammering this down. They deserve a lot of credit for getting an agreement with the league.”

So all signs point to a ratification by the players some time today.

If the expected happens, commissioner Gary Bettman will join his adversary Goodenow at a podium in a Toronto hotel and announce that the NHL is back in business.

The NHL board of governors will hold a ratification vote on Friday during a meeting in New York, but that ballot is really just a formality. Bettman was sent out by the owners to get “cost certainty” – a hard salary cap tied to league revenues – and he has it.

That vote by the 30 teams is so much of a sure thing to pass that the league has already planned the televised draft lottery for Friday and an announcement on new rules changes for next season.

But for now, the biggest change is in how teams pay their players.

The union liked the deal that stood in place for 10 years, following the previous lockout, and Bettman and the owners made it their mission to overhaul the system.

“I think it’s unfair for guys to start to point the finger,” New York Islanders forward Michael Peca said. “It is what it is. Any deal that we would have gotten was going to be significantly worse than the one we came off from.

“We tried to go in a certain direction, and at a certain time the executive committee tried to make the best of the situation they were in. I think they did that. I think they did a nice job.”

Bettman’s news conference on Friday to announce the relaunch of the league won’t have representatives from the players’ association there, as the union will still be holding a meeting with agents to go over the CBA – a document numbering 600 pages.

Pending ratification, teams will have six days – beginning Saturday – to buy players out of their contracts to free cap space and nine days to negotiate with their unrestricted free agents.

AP-ES-07-20-05 2059EDT

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