SUN Hockey Pool

Hot issue turns cool

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 8:34 AM ET

The success of using replacement players in the NHL will be made or broken by the fans.

After all, they're the ones who'll be buying tickets.

Of course, that's if the league -- which vowed to be up and running in time for the 2005-06 campaign -- goes in that direction to return to action.

Flames president Ken King is gauging fan reaction to that concept.

"I would say it's medium to cool on replacement players," King said yesterday. "Some people have said, 'If you're using replacement players, then I assume you'll be using replacement prices.'

"It's exactly what you would expect. They are the same as us -- they want that great team back, want it to be as good or better and they want it to be competitive."

Earlier this week, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said he expects the league -- which sacrificed the 2004-05 season in its quest for cost certainty -- to be back in action by fall.

Naturally, the assumption is it'll take replacement players seeing as the league and the NHLPA have made so few strides in negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement since the lockout began Sept. 15.

King re-iterated his desire to return with as many members as possible of the squad that went all the way to the seventh game of the 2004 Stanley Cup finals.

"I am like a heat-seeking missile, only concerned about the CBA and ensuring we have our gifted young athletes, developed by Darryl Sutter and developed by the team, and that they're in place," he said. "All of our focus, all of our energy, all of our effort is to assist in negotiating, whatever way we can, to getting a new CBA done."

Wishful thinking, some would say, especially since the players' association said it plans to step back and refocus before returning to the bargaining table. Considering the players aren't due a paycheque until October, common belief is they won't rush into a deal.

King is still hopeful a new agreement will be in place soon.

"I was, perhaps naively, optimistic because I never in my wildest dreams thought we wouldn't be able to make a deal," King said. "I still think we can make a deal and I think it's imperative we make that deal very soon. We are and have been planning for the season."

Currently, the Flames are in the process of returning money to their season-ticket holders, as well as working on renewals for next season.

King said the process is going smoothly.

"As we speak, we are receiving thousands of season-ticket refund responses. I'm happy to tell you north of 80 percent of them are very positive and saying, 'Keep my money, what else do you need and what can we do to help?,' " he said. "We will now move into a renewal process that runs co-incidental with the refund process and we'll know what we need to fill the gaps. I don't know what that's going to be yet but our advertising and sponsorship groups are closing deals.

"There are some questions on ticket pricing. It's been indicated we will hold the price under certain circumstances and some have said, 'I'd hoped you were going to reduce the price.' But we don't know what business model we're going to be operating under so, when we do, we'll price it then," he continued.

"I would be stunned if it were going anywhere but the same or down but we'll learn that later."

The next pressure point for the league is the draft, slated for late June in Ottawa. King said it's still business as usual for the team's scouting staff.

"It's more challenging for them since we don't know where we'll be with the picks," King said. "I think, ironically, we'll have a greater base of knowledge because of that."


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