Owners pull the plug on replacements

Updated: April 28, 2005, 2:49 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

Put away those ECHL depth charts. Cancel that rush order on updated United Hockey League rosters.

The National Hockey League has seen the light and pulled the plug, at least temporarily, on the use of replacement players to start the 2005-06 season.

The implication -- or threat, if you will -- always has been that in the absence of a new collective bargaining agreement, team owners would start the season with whatever players they could convince to throw on a jersey and lace up their skates.

Not anymore.

"It's not an option for the start of the 2005-06 season," Bill Daly, the league's executive vice president said in an e-mail exchange Wednesday after a four-hour board of governors meeting in New York.

Of all the unappealing elements of the lockout -- and there have been many -- none has been more revolting than the notion of 700 Rob Ray look-alikes taking the ice and shouting, "Game On!" And who knows? At some point if these two sides can't resolve the differences that have already thrown an entire regular season, playoffs, all-star game and entry draft under the bus, we still may see some grotesque, mutated version of NHL hockey performed by replacement players.

"Among the options are continuing to stay shut down -- indefinitely or for some period of time -- another is playing with new players," commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters after Wednesday's meeting. "But we're not going to speculate about that because we want it to be clear our focus is on making a deal with the players' association."

Certainly the past two days have provided a myriad of messages, mostly mixed, about whether a new CBA is in the offing. There was little in the way of optimism reported from Tuesday's bargaining session, one that reportedly ended with Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs angrily denouncing a union proposal. But a day later owners were talking enthusiastically about starting a season with those very same union members back in the fold.

Implied, then, is that owners have come to understand what seemed to be obvious from the outset -- rebuilding the game must be done with the best players on the ice.

It also suggests the league is dedicated to negotiating an end to this disagreement rather than bullying and threatening its way to a conclusion.

Such a strategy might have been more effective last November, but it's a moot point now.

Instead, the good news is that the future of the NHL seems to have assumed its rightful place at the top of both side's do-to lists. Such a shift was first apparent when players were invited to partake in discussions about rule changes at GMs meeting in Detroit two weeks ago. Wednesday's developments are further evidence.

While Daly wouldn't elaborate on why replacement players were no longer an option for the start of next season, he did say it wasn't because the league couldn't get its legal ducks in a row in time.

"We have decided not to make them an option," he said. "No more complicated than that."

For the moment, it seems big-market teams that did not want any part of replacement players have carried the day. Whether the cost of that victory is giving up a bigger piece of their profits through revenue sharing isn't yet known.

The use of replacement players was expected to initiate a revolt within the NHLPA, however, it's a high-stakes gambit for Bettman and the owners, even higher than the cancellation of the 2004-05 season. While canceling the season put the financial pinch on both owners and players, fans were left merely empty-handed. But by following up a lost season with replacement players, owners run an even greater risk of insulting their fans instead of just ticking them off.

It is a significant distinction.

A study of 3,300 diehard hockey fans released Wednesday by the NHL Fans Association showed that almost half (48 percent) would watch fewer games if the NHL returned with replacement players. The number is significant given that the group represents 27,000 hard-core fans evenly split between Canada and the United States.

"I think our members would be the last people on the earth to turn their backs on the NHL," NHLFA co-founder Jim Boone said. "I think the numbers [of fans not watching replacement players] would be much, much higher if you were to sample the general hockey fans."

One NHL coach told ESPN.com recently that using replacement players "was the worst thing the league could do." He suggested the league might be able to escape from this with only one black eye, not two blackened eyes and a broken nose, if replacement players were taken out of the equation.

Perhaps it's an image owners have already considered and found to be similarly unpleasant.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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