Cheers or jeers?

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 7:41 AM ET

They're coming back. Sooner or later the players will realize how good they had it, and how much damage their ill-advised standoff caused the golden goose, and will come crawling back for less than they turned down six months and $1 billion in lost salary ago.

Then what?

What are the fans supposed to do?

Cheer them? Worship them again? Throw more money at their feet?

They shouldn't hold their breath. Nobody ever accused the NHLPA of being rocket scientists - turning down $1.3 million in the NHL to play for $90,000 in Europe pretty much excludes you from the MIT scholarship program - but they're probably smart enough to know this: when they do come back it won't be the cozy love-in to which they've grown accustomed.

"I don't think we'll ever really be able to tell what damage has been done to the game until we're back playing," said Oilers defenceman and player rep Jason Smith. "As a player I hope the support is still there and the game continues to thrive when we're back playing."

Consider it a long shot. In fact, history all but guarantees they'll go 0-for-2 on that wish list. When baseball cancelled a World Series it took 10 years and an army of pharmacists to cure the resentment. Hockey, with American fans who couldn't care less and Canadian fans who care so much they've taken this personally, should expect no less of a backlash.

"There's no question that people are going to be disgruntled and disappointed," said Oilers defenceman Eric Brewer. "They're not happy."

And as Oilers player reps, it's likely that Smith, Brewer, Steve Staios, Ethan Moreau and Cory Cross (who've been some of the most militant spokesmen in the union) will hear about it.

"I think we're fully aware that some people are going to be a little sour," said Brewer. "That's fine. "They can make their decisions and have their points of view, I can live with that.

"The thing that's frustrating is when we hear we're not trying to get a good deal for our teams - that's exactly what we're trying to do. We're really trying to do our best here."

In places like Nashville, fans don't have a clue who their player rep is. But in Canada they know, and they have long memories. Bill Ranford, Edmonton's player rep during the '94 work stoppage, wore the scars of his post until they traded him in 1996.

"In the Canadian cities there are going to be more questions asked than in an American markets," said Smith. "So the player reps are going to be more visible. But I hope there wouldn't be any grudges. All the guys who are involved in the process are quality people and go out and play as hard as they can on the ice, I hope that's what we would be remembered for.

"The bottom line in all this is that you're standing up for a group that you're involved with - no different than when I go out and play a game. I go out and the rest of the guys in our group go out, and play as hard as we can. We're just doing what we believe is right."

Brewer hopes fans in all NHL cities learn to separate the business of hockey from hockey itself.

"You can never say we don't put our best effort forward on the ice," said Brewer. "We try to be good role models and good representatives of Edmonton. If there was ever any issue about our commitment to the Edmonton Oilers, or the city of Edmonton, we wouldn't be here, period. That's the most important thing: what you do as a player on the ice and in the community. The fans of Edmonton are very respectful and knowledgeable of the game and understand that."

We'll see.


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