Replacement Players in the NHL?

It’s been suggested the NHL might try to hire replacement players as a means of breaking the resolve of the NHLPA and forcing a resolution to the lockout.

Former Toronto Maple Leafs executive Bill Watters originally made that suggestion in mid-September, repeating it earlier this week in an interview with Josh Rimer.

Watters believes “there are enough free agents around and players under contract in junior, on reserve lists, and in the AHL to ice a team in every NHL city”. He feels it wouldn’t be a “long-term thing”, but rather a “union-busting” move, believing the locked-out NHLer’s would return “within two days”.

He told Rimer we shouldn’t be surprised if we’re still talking about this by November 15th or the American Thanksgiving.

“Puck Daddy” Greg Wyshynski does a nice job of punching holes in Watters’ theory, but I feel I should add my two cents.

The NHL never went the “replacement players” route in the midst of the previous lockout, but merely floated the idea after the season was cancelled, and then only  if there was no new CBA in place for the following season.

Under US federal law, a business which has locked out its employees may hire replacements, provided they are temporary, meaning once the lockout is lifted, the locked-out employees get their jobs back. In Canada, labor relations laws are even stricter regarding the hiring of replacements, and would be handled by the respective labor boards of the provinces where Canadian NHL teams are located.

For the NHL to hire replacements, the league would have to declare an impasse with the NHLPA via the US National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which would then investigate to determine the validity of the league’s impasse claim.  It would have to do the same with the labor relations boards in the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec.

Those investigations would take time, perhaps weeks or months. If the NHL were truly serious about employing replacement players by, say, the end of November, they would have to declare an impasse now. Given that negotiations between the league and the PA only began in earnest in mid-July, it’s unlikely the various labor relations boards would side with the league at this time.

It’s been suggested the threat to hire replacement players the last time contributed to bringing about the end of the last lockout. In reality, it was the fear of losing another season, and another year of salaries, which proved the catalyst in the players accepting the salary cap they once swore they’d never accept. Talk of replacement players had very little, if anything, to do with the PA’s capitulation.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is considered a patient, cunning, doggedly determined negotiator. Opting for such a drastic measure as replacement players mere weeks into a lockout would be uncharacteristic.

NHLPA director Donald Fehr encountered a similar threat from Major League Baseball owners in 1995 during the players strike when he was director of the baseball players union. He didn’t blink, correctly pointing out nobody was going to confuse MLB teams staffed with replacements as a major league game. Doubtless he’ll hold the same opinion if the NHL tried that route. He’ll also be well prepared to launch a challenge with the various labor relations boards to prevent the NHL from doing so.

NHL players  are better prepared this time around for the possibility of another lost season, even though it’s something they wish to avoid. A threat of replacement players, especially in the midst of a locked-out season, would only stiffen their resolve, especially if Bettman were silly enough to prematurely employ that strategy.

Watters believes there’s enough players under contracts within each teams’ system to stock them all for a season, but he’s assuming a number of those players would willingly jump to the NHL, if for nothing else than the opportunity to play for a short period of time in a water-down version of the big league.

Some unquestionably would, but it is unlikely most would want to be part of such a such-term, obvious union-busting scheme, which would be of little benefit to their own professional careers.

Let’s assume Watters is right and every NHL team could successfully stock their rosters with replacements. Just what kind of an NHL would we see?

No disrespect to players throughout the minors and those who’ve toiled for years in Europe, who’ve worked very hard to eke out pro careers as hockey players, but there’s a reason most of them never made it to the NHL. Put simply: their skills weren’t good enough.

The NHL would be trying to pass itself off as a competitive, big-league sport with second-rate talent, which most fans simply won’t buy.

Yes, yes, I know there are fans who “cheer for the jersey, not the name on the back”, but that attitude would be put to the test when forced to pay big league prices to watch minor league talent.

Oh, you think NHL teams are going to make it more affordable for fans to watch lesser lights wearing their jerseys? Some of them will reduce their prices, but if you believe all of them will dramatically slash their ticket prices, or offer up significant discounts to current season ticket holders, or charge considerably less for concessions and parking, then you might be interested in a bridge I have for sale in Brooklyn, New York.

The NHL fan cost index last season was $328.81 US for an average family of four to attend a game. Even if that average cost were cut in half, fans would still be paying too much to watch minor league talent.

For all the blather of “I cheer for the team, not the players”, the bottom line is it is the players which makes the team worth cheering for. Several weeks of watching lesser talented no-names skating around in half-empty arenas will put that myth to rest. Anyone who honestly believes fans would flock to that product has watched too many movies.

Another factor to consider is the potential embarrassment for the NHL of icing clubs filled with replacement talent, while the AHL – which has its rosters currently bolstered by locked-out NHLers on entry level contracts -would be icing a better product, and in most cases at more affordable prices.

Finally, let’s not forget the debacle the NFL recently underwent by replacing its locked-out on-field officials with replacements. Granted, it’s not the same thing as replacing locked-out players, but the potential for a serious fan and media backlash exists.

Perhaps Bettman and the owners might consider the replacement players option if it appears the start of next season will also be threatened, as that would make more sense at that point to employ that threat as a means of breaking the union.

Of course, the league would face the same potential problems noted earlier in this post, but at least as a negotiating tactic, the timing would make more sense.

Ultimately, it would be a surprising move by the NHL to hire replacement players during the course of a locked-out season, one which won’t do its brand any good, and ultimately won’t be embraced by the majority of fans.

5 Comments

  1. Nice piece, Spector. Thank you.
    Lockouts have become the de-facto way for management to re-negotiate.
    From hotels to sugar factories, it’s nasty business that allows this.
    I expect the NLRB to start swinging in the other direction on this trend soon.

  2. the Only people i can see paying for a game featuring replacement players would be the season ticket holders who’ve already paid for their tickets and do so simply to hold onto their seats, i don’t even see them attending such games. if the owners and NHL were to employ such a tactic it would demonstrate further contempt for their customers particularly their best customers the season ticket holders by foisting a substandard product at a premium price (i doubt they would lower prices as they certainly didn’t after the last lockout), let’s not forget that the owners shut the doors when the players offered to play while negotiating. one thing that no one seems to pick up on is if the NHL goes to replacement players that would free up the stars to go to leagues overseas would it not? if the NHL brings in replacement players does it invalidate current contracts? if i was the owners i would be scared to death of my best players saying they were committing to another league for a year if replacement players were brought in. the NHL is thought to be the best league because it has the best players and that certainly wouldn’t be true with replacement players.

    • As a Flyers season ticket holder, I would go to those games, but only if the price of the tickets were drastically reduced. The replacement players were brought in and the season ticket prices were held in full, there would likely be a class action suit against the owners.

      However, you are right. Regardless of the outcome the people that will be most effected are the season ticket holders. The season ticket holders cannot afford to sit out when the league resumes for fear of losing their seats (my seats are very good). The people who will sit out are the people that I sell tickets to so that I am able to afford season tickets. They sit out, the owners get their money from the season tickets holders and we just have to suck it up.
      Hopefully, I’ll develop Stockhom Syndrome and all will be well.
      The question is: If you could ask Bettman and Fehr one question, would you ask it before or after you punched them in the face?

  3. Deathlok, lol! Gameon, good post.

    I’m somewhat surprised that someone like Watters, who seemingly knows the league, would make such a statement judging by all the reasons listed above. Using replacement players appears to be unworkable, impractical or flat out impossible. I’m guessing his original statement was made on some sports talk show (?) where the hosts, desperate to keep the banter going, often throw out wacky ideas just for the sake of it. If that’s the case then his original statement might be understandable but to then go on and repeat it again during a one on one interview is truly puzzling. To me he comes out of this sounding as nothing more than a shill for Bettman/Daly and the league owners.

  4. 1) As I wrote in a previous thread Donals Fehr would salivate at the prospect of the nHL attempting to bring in replacements. It would open up the NHL to court scrutiny and they do NOT want any part of hat kind of transparency!
    2) Additionally, and this wasn’t mentioned in this blog post, Donald Fehr won his biggest victory in MLB afer the owners tried to bring in replacement players. He brought the league to court and won a great victory, ending that nearly year long work stoppage, and bring the MLB owners to their knees in the process. There has been labour peace ever since