Search and replace mission

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:06 AM ET

Many players of the newly christened Toronto Marlies could cross the street from the Ricoh Coliseum to the Air Canada Centre faster than anyone thinks.

Maple Leafs general manager John Ferguson convened a meeting of his pro scouts yesterday and though he deftly tip-toed around the thorny replacement player issue, there's no secret what his group was studying. If the National Hockey League is serious about opening in October with a lockout, someone is going to have to fill those Toronto sweaters.

"Right now we are projecting and modelling a number of scenarios with different player pools and where we can tap in," Ferguson said.

"Our pro scouts are in this week ... just like we would do in any event, but it's not just NHL free agents we're looking at. It's college, overage juniors and European leagues as well. It's to be ready for the draft (if it happens in June as scheduled), but also to help our team, no matter how it looks like."

The introduction of replacements isn't expected to be a smooth transition for the NHL, which faces potential legal road blocks in the United States and Canada.

If the Leafs get as far as icing a team, lockout-weary Toronto fans might stay away as the NHL Players' Association hopes. Or they could show up in droves to cheer for the same blue and white sweaters they have for generations.

"You look at the names on the St. John's Leafs this year," Ferguson said, "Carlo Colaiacovo, Mikael Tellqvist, Matt Stajan, Brendan Bell, Ian White, Kyle Wellwood. These are players who are going to be pushing for NHL jobs anyway. On average, each AHL team has 11 or 12 players who play at least one NHL game."

Whether AHLers will risk the wrath of their NHL brethren by signing as replacements is not known.

"Our focus remains the (full-time) Maple Leafs and everything that connotes being back on the ice next year," Ferguson said. "We're committed to getting a deal done that makes sense for both sides. There is plenty of time to get the right deal done. At the same time, we're ready for any scenario."

Ferguson isn't the only one at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. girding for 2005-06. President Richard Peddie said the organization is "deep, deep" into planning for the new season, including scheduling and marketing.

UNCHARTED TERRITORY

"We're in uncharted territory and we have to be very creative and thorough to come up with the right plan for our fans, suite holders and corporate partners," Peddie said.

As for what MLSEL plans to charge the public to watch replacements, he said "we're starting to think about it, but we're not ready to announce anything yet."

Vice-president Bob Hunter, GM of the ACC, has already sent a first draft of the schedules to the NHL and the AHL and expects to hear back from the former in early June. The rough plan is for the Leafs to stay with Tuesday and Saturday home dates, but not overlap with their farmhands.

"The AHL is generally a weekend league," Hunter said. "We're looking at Saturday afternoon and Sundays as home dates and probably Thursday as an alternative, which leans towards the weekend for travel purposes."


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