I had an interesting conversation with an audio tech guy while doing a TV interview last month. Even though he was a union worker, he didn’t understand why the NHL wouldn’t simply bring in scab players during the then-impending lockout. His logic was that fans just want to watch hockey and that for the amount of money the pros get paid, replacement players would line up.
I had to set him straight (in the nicest way possible).
As I argued, people watch the NHL because it features the best players in the world. And if you want to test that idea, simply look at teams at the bottom of the standings and correlate the attendance.
There are some bulletproof franchises – Toronto and Montreal, for example, were at the bottom of the standings and the top of the attendance board last season – but both those teams had hope before the 2011-12 campaign began. Montreal was bushwhacked by the loss of Andrei Markov, while Toronto’s goaltending woes spun a promising season (and big years from Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul) into the ground.
Contrast that with two other venerable franchises that suffered at the gate only a few years ago: St. Louis and Chicago. In 2005-06, the Blues finished 27th in NHL attendance with 14,213 folks per game. The product that year was the worst team in the West, led by 37-year-old Scott Young’s 49 points in 79 games. The Hawks, meanwhile, edged out the Blues to take 14th place, driven by the offensive stylings of Kyle Calder and Mark Bell – neither of whom hit the 60-point mark. Still in the Bill Wirtz era, 13,318 Chicago fans would brave the horror show every game, good for 29th in league attendance.
What’s my point here? The product usually matters. No one begrudges Columbus fans for losing the faith in recent years when the team hasn’t even sniffed the playoffs since that magical Ken Hitchcock/Steve Mason effort in 2008-09. And the double-shot of no playoffs and a decrepit building shields Islanders faithful from any outside scorn (unless you’re a Rangers fan, in which case the scorn is implied). The players who regularly skate for the Jackets and Isles are among the 730 best in the world, even if only one or two are in the top 100 right now (John Tavares the obvious one).
As I said to the union tech, those teams have a hard enough time getting people to watch now; you want to bring in the next 730 best and test their patience?
And let’s face it: replacements wouldn’t even be the next 730. Most of those ranks are in the American League, Russia, Sweden, Finland, major junior and the NCAA. You’re looking at players who assume they will never get a shot at the NHL again.
The cliché about the logo on the front of the sweater being more important than the name on the back only goes so far, particularly since fan sentiment still seems to be largely anti-owner right now.
Simply put, this is an arrow the NHL cannot pull from its quiver in negotiations. You can gripe about ticket prices to games, but when Pavel Datsyuk destroys a goalie in the shootout or Patrick Kane dangles a defender out of his jock strap, the price of admission is the last thing on your mind. Montreal fans can boo lustily when Boston’s Milan Lucic drops the gloves with one of their boys, but it just wouldn’t be the same if it was two journeyman goons throwing down, even in those vaunted sweaters.
So with all due respect to the union tech at the TV station, the answer is no, you can’t just replace NHL players.
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.