PRESTO, Pa. (AP) -- Pittsburgh Penguins owner-player Mario Lemieux said NHL players are all but

PRESTO, Pa. (AP) -- Pittsburgh Penguins owner-player Mario Lemieux said NHL players are all but certain to get a much worse economic deal in the soon-to-be-approved labor agreement than they would have gotten by accepting the owners' offer four months ago.
"They should have taken the deal back in February," Lemieux said Thursday, referring to the last-gasp negotiations that took place just before the 2004-05 season was canceled. "The cap was at $42.5 million, that was the offer from the owners, now it looks like it's going to be a lot less than that."
Players Association senior director Ted Saskin denied Lemieux's inference the players would accept an inferior deal than that proposed just before NHL commissioner Gary Bettman canceled the season Feb. 16.
"The parties are still negotiating and so it is only prudent for evaluation of the agreement to take place once it is completed," Saskin said in a statement issued by the NHLPA. "To evaluate one specific component of the agreement could lead to an inaccurate assessment."
Despite sacrificing an entire season to a labor dispute -- the first major American pro sports league to do so -- the NHL will emerge from its lengthy layoff with a much better economic climate for its clubs, Lemieux said.
Cap is coming
After insisting for years it would not accept a salary cap, the players association will do so in the new agreement, which was still being negotiated Thursday night.
"We had to cancel the season to get the right deal," Lemieux said.
Lemieux, talking to reporters at his annual charity golf tournament, also said he was contacted Wednesday by Wayne Gretzky about attending a Team Canada camp in August -- a sign that an Olympics break in February will be included in the new NHL labor agreement.
"I think they're getting very, very close, and it's going to be a deal that allows all the markets to be successful, allow the owners to have a fair chance to make money," Lemieux said.
Previously, Bettman suggested a labor deal was needed months ago for the league to shut down again for the Olympics, as it did in 1998 and 2002. But the NHL apparently believes another Olympics tournament is needed to help revive interest in the sport.
Hockey's TV ratings during the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics were its highest in the United States since the 1980 U.S. Olympic "Miracle on Ice" team and were many times greater than Stanley Cup playoff games draw.
"I never thought, in 2002, I would play in this one, but time moved pretty quickly and we're there already," Lemieux said. "It was a great experience to play in the Olympics, a totally different game and a different pace, and I really enjoyed it."
Canadian captain
Lemieux, playing despite a serious hip injury that allowed him to play only one more NHL game that season, was the captain of the 2002 Canadian team that beat the United States in the gold medal game. Gretzky served as Canada's executive director, a post he will retain in these Olympics.
"If there is a CBA in the next few weeks, they're trying to get a camp together sometime in August, so he [Gretzky] was just asking me if I would be interested," said Lemieux, who will be 40 in October.
Lemieux, decidedly downbeat at this time a year ago as the NHL lockout neared and the Penguins remained without a new arena deal, was clearly more optimistic about the league's and his team's future Thursday.
Though he is selling the Penguins to William "Boots" Del Biaggio, a San Jose businessman, Lemieux will remain as the Penguins' chief executive officer and retain a 5 percent stake in the franchise.

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