Two points of clarification before we head down this rabbit hole.
First, we don't believe that this lockout is anywhere close to contentious enough for the spectre of replacement players to be raised — or for that option to be eventually explored. Second, there's a tangled web of labor laws that would prevent something like this from happening in 30 different markets, especially since it's a lockout and not a strike. (But again, I'm not a labor lawyer, I just play one on a blog.)
Joe Warmington of the Toronto Sun, with an assist from Bill Watters, floated the idea of scab hockey players helping to crush the spirit of the NHLPA as early as 2013:
By mid-January, could the NHL be featuring replacement players? In previous labour battles they have cancelled a half season, a whole season and even had a year where they did not award a Stanley Cup.
One former NHL executive feels if a labour deal is not worked out with the players by Jan. 15, 2013, the NHL hiring non-union players could be the owners' prerogative and very well their next logical move. And former Maple Leaf assistant general manager Bill Watters said make no mistake, it could be done very easily.
"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 city," said Watters. "It is conceivable. It wouldn't be a long-term thing but a union breaking move."
Would you support an NHL replacement team season?
Warmington raises the 1987 NFL strike, in which replacement players competed for three weeks before the players union submitted, as an example of scab athletes forcing a settlement. It's not exactly revisionist history, but close enough.
The replacement games in 1987 were terrible, amateurish and inept. Most games were sparsely attended. Fans and media gleefully chided the franchises as being faux-pro teams.("Counterfeit Bills", to this day, is an incredible nickname.)
If anything, the decision by the NFL to field teams of ex-college jocks and your buddy from down the block shifted sentiment to the players' union — although it produced some incredible human interest stories.
Including the greatest speech in Keanu Reeves history:
That said, the replacement games had two things going for it: NFL football every week, and television networks to cover those games. What helped fracture the NFL players union was the number if its members — some rather prominent ones, too — that crossed the picket line and played with the scabs. The strike ended in the middle of October without a new Collective Bargaining Agreement for players.
The NHL floated the concept of replacement players in the 2004-05 lockout with its owners, but it was with regard to the following season. That didn't necessarily play into the eventual settlement between the sides -- the lack of spine for NHLPA leadership did -- but the concept was discussed.
The NFL and NHL share a common strand of DNA: It's the uniform, not the name on the back, that fans support. (The NBA and MLB are now and will always be more star-driven.) Fans pay to watch preseason games in both Leagues that feature obscure players that'll never see the regular season, but scream their heads off because it's still the Giants scoring a touchdown or the Leafs scoring a goal.
To that end, would fans support NHL replacement players in those sweaters?
In the context of this work stoppage, I don't think so, unless feelings about the NHL players radically change in the coming weeks and months.
They still hold the moral high ground here, seen as victims of a cash-grab by owners who have shut down the game we love for a second time in seven years. (These are the optics for every fan, but the sense we get is that it's the majority opinion.)
Selling scab hockey as a punishment to greedy players is dramatically different than getting disgruntled fans in the building to fill the owners' pockets during a lockout created of their own irresponsibility and avarice.
True, it'll always be about the logo on the front for hockey fans. Maybe we're overestimating how angst towards the League and its owners weighs against discounted tickets and a reasonable facsimile of NHL hockey. But in this climate, we can't see it being an effective alternative.
But would it help end the lockout?
In the NFL, the scab league gave striking players a destination after they crossed the picket line. In the NHL, players are locked out; why would the owners allow them access to the ice when they aren't allowed access to their own weight rooms? And if so, for what? The salaries that are the reason they're being locked out?
Besides, NHL players have something the NFL didn't have: Alternatives.
So no NHL replacement players. Please. Unless, of course, it's a team featuring Mike Danton, Chris Simon and coached by Ted Nolan vs. the Vityaz Chekov of North America. Then we might DVR it.
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