At Last, Drop the Puck

Summer may be hotter than a pepper sprout in most of North America, but hockey fans at last can indulge in cool dreams of frozen rinks and flashing skates.

Last winter the National Hockey League (NHL) lost an entire season when it and its players' union couldn't agree on a new contract, and owners shut down the league. Last week, the two sides reported they had a six-year deal that would let play resume in September. The final details, which would officially end the longest sports labor dispute ever on the continent, are expected to be announced this week, perhaps Wednesday.

After their gloves-off brawl, both sides came away losers. Fans lost, too. How many will return, and how quickly, remains to be seen. Loyalists will put aside hurt feelings and buy a ticket or tune in. But casual fans - and prospective fans - have had a year to find other ways to spend their free time and disposable cash. Baseball took four years to recover from its strike-shortened 1994 season, until the magical (and possibly steroid-powered) home run race between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire created a fan frenzy.

The good news is that the new hockey pact seems to include the kind of sensible cost cutting that should have been agreed to much earlier. Salaries actually will rise for players earning the minimum. But superstar pay will be capped. And a team salary cap of no more than $39 million will keep owners from overspending. Such a cap has worked well for pro football, while capless baseball has seen its spending soar, with the Yankees' payroll passing $200 million.

The NHL is also mulling rule changes. One would wisely let a shootout decide tied games, if overtime fails. Hockey's putting on a new game face. Now, let's drop the puck.

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