Lemieux also contacted about Olympics participation

PRESTO, Pa. -- Pittsburgh Penguins owner-player Mario Lemieux said NHL players are all but certain to get a much worse deal in the soon-to-be-approved labor agreement than they would have gotten by accepting the owners' offer in February.

"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.

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

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

"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 Thursday.

Previously, NHL commissioner Gary 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 despite being the first major American pro sports league to lose an entire season to a labor dispute, 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."

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, Calif., businessman, Lemieux will remain as the Penguins' chief executive officer and retain a 5 percent stake in the franchise. He is also optimistic new legislation permitting slot machines in Pennsylvania will generate revenue that can be used for a new Pittsburgh arena.

Lemieux also expects the Penguins, the NHL's worst team during the 2003-04 season, to be markedly improved under the NHL's new economic system. The Penguins are all but certain to have more salary cap room than any other team -- they have only about $10 million committed in 2005-06 salaries -- and Lemieux expects them to add several upper-tier free agents once the deal is completed.

"With the gap [in NHL payrolls] not being what it was before, we'll have a better chance to compete every year," he said. "With the new owners coming in, spending more money on payroll and finding the right free agents, I think we're well positioned. ... We're going to change the face of this team."