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Hockey Pact Clears Way for a Shortened Season : Sports: NHL owners, union agree on end to 103-day lockout. Games could begin Jan. 20 if players ratify accord.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An uneasy peace has settled over the National Hockey League, which finally reached a settlement Wednesday in a labor dispute that began when owners locked out players on Oct. 1 in an attempt to bring about major changes in the league’s salary structure.

The NHL, which recently has enjoyed a box-office boom, came perilously close to joining major league baseball as the second major professional sport to lose its season to labor unrest. Instead, the NHL’s 26 teams might begin play as soon as Friday, Jan. 20.

After negotiators talked through a Tuesday noon deadline set by Commissioner Gary Bettman for canceling the season if an agreement had not been reached with the NHL Players Assn., the league presented a final proposal late Tuesday. The offer was recommended for approval Wednesday morning by members of the union’s negotiating committee.

The league’s 700-plus players, who have scattered to Europe and throughout North America, have until noon Friday to ratify the settlement in a vote by secret ballot. They are expected to accept the six-year collective bargaining agreement that makes unfettered free agency attainable for the first time.

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But the pact also includes a salary cap that limits player compensation during their first three seasons in the league. However, players avoided a team salary cap, which governs clubs in the National Basketball Assn. and National Football League and was unilaterally implemented by baseball owners last month.

“Obviously, I am thrilled, happy, relieved,” said Bettman, who took office as the league’s first commissioner barely two years ago and who has already had to deal with allegations of a game-fixing scandal in Ottawa, a strike by on-ice officials and the 103-day lockout of players.

Some work remains before the NHL opens its 78th season. League and union officials must settle such details as when players will begin receiving paychecks. It’s expected they will get some pay when they report to camp, but it hasn’t been determined whether their total salary will be pro-rated to the number of games.

If the agreement is ratified, training camps will open Friday in the NHL’s 26 cities. A schedule will not be released until the agreement is ratified, but Bettman said it’s likely each club will play 48 games. Clubs will face only other clubs in their conferences, and the regular season will end by April 30, followed by a full round of playoffs.

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The NHL season is usually 84 games. This schedule will be the shortest since the 1941-42 season, when a seven-team NHL--which had no franchises west of Chicago--had a 48-game schedule.

Marty McSorley of the Kings, a member of the union’s negotiating committee, said some players might vote against the agreement out of resentment that the league--in an effort to draw players back to the bargaining table after a summer without negotiations--rescinded their training camp meal money and ceased paying their medical insurance premiums four months ago.

“There are going to be some guys who are bitter. It was an attack on families. There were things that were done that were not pretty,” he said. “There’s not going to be a lot of hugs and kisses.”

“I’m very confident the membership will accept the negotiating committee’s recommendation,” Bob Goodenow, executive director of the NHLPA, said during a news conference he held about an hour after Bettman’s.

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“I don’t think both sides are totally happy, but the bottom line is that this is an agreement we can live with, and both sides can go forward. It’s important that we get the focus where it belongs--the competition.”

Tony Tavares, president of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, pronounced himself “ecstatic” with the agreement.

The Ducks, who are owned by the Walt Disney Co., were among the NHL’s most profitable franchises last season, with a surplus of about $9 million. They didn’t need the payroll-cutting measures that the new agreement will institute, but Tavares applauded its overall intent of slowing salary growth to a pace where it will match that of revenues.

League figures show NHL clubs lost a collective $70 million the last two seasons. As the weakest of the four major professional team sports, the NHL’s TV and merchandising revenues are only a fraction of those in the NFL, NBA and major league baseball. Its contract with the Fox network is for $155 million over five years, about one-tenth the amount Fox paid to the NFL for televising NFC games.

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Times staff writer Lisa Dillman contributed to this story.

* RELATED STORIES: C1, C6-7

More on the NHL Strike

* Times coverage of the hockey strike from early August to the latest news on the proposed NHL agreement is available on the TimesLink on-line service. Or, call TimesLine at 808-8463 and press *3000.

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