NEW YORK -- If the NHL season is to begin on time, it will have to be with a new collective bargaining agreement in place -- not with replacement players.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said yesterday that the season won't start in October if a new agreement hasn't been reached with the union, but left open the possibility that replacement players would be considered if no deal is struck.
The league continues to plan on having hockey in October, Bettman said.
"If we do not have a new collective bargaining agreement, we will not open the season on time," Bettman said. "If that is an eventuality at that juncture, we will have to start again on what options we will pursue."
The likelihood of replacement players taking the ice has diminished greatly since the last board meeting on March 1.
At that time, Bettman and several team representatives stressed that they expected next season to begin on time. The goal has always been to make a deal with the union, but it was clear that other options were being considered.
Replacement players appeared to be the most plausible alternative. But having become the first major sports league in North America to lose an entire season to a labor dispute, the NHL doesn't seem eager to jump into that scenario -- yet.
"We have stayed out of the replacement player debate since we thought it was a poorly conceived and ill-advised strategy," Bob Goodenow, the executive director of the players' association, said in a statement. "Finally, it appears the league has come to realize it would be bad for the fans, the sport, and the business.
"The NHL should focus its efforts on reaching an agreement with the players."
Bettman was adamant that the board was as unified as ever and said there was plenty of support for all scenarios should a deal with the union fall out of reach.
"We made it clear that we were going to explore all our options," Bettman said. "Exploring your options doesn't mean you're doing it or not doing it. It doesn't mean it's a good idea or bad idea."
Bettman wouldn't even use the term replacements, choosing "new players" instead.
He didn't set a deadline for a deal and he hasn't expressed one to Goodenow. The lockout was imposed last September.
Representatives from all 30 NHL teams met in New York for the second time in seven weeks.