The minute the National Hockey League cancels the 2004-05 season, expect the replacement players debate to begin.
If icing a new-look league is its plan to foil the union, it would falls under the auspices of the National Labour Relations Board in the U.S.
A bargaining impasse would be sought by the league, hinging on proving it bargained in good faith. The players could challenge that to the board, arguing the league's inflexibility on the cap issue, though the league's last rejected offer this week had at least a hint of creativity.
But even getting their "last, best and final offer" implemented by the board next year would not be the end of the league's woes. There could be questions about Canadian or other foreigners (Europeans) contending for the jobs in the U.S. and there are potentially four different interpretations of replacement labour law in the four Canadian provinces that have NHL teams.
"It's going to be a patchwork deal at best," said Bill Adams, of Adams, Nash, Haskell and Sheridan, labour relations consultants in Ft. Wright, Ky., and familiar with the NHL situation. "Right now, it's a book with open pages."
Would anyone watch replacements next year and would players, having gone a year without an NHL-sized salary, cross the line?
Those few who entertained the idea in the autumn found themselves heavily criticized by the union, while it remains to be seen if those players dislodged from jobs in Europe and the minors by unemployed NHLers will resist the temptation of payback by signing as replacements.
Asked specifically about replacements yesterday, NHL senior vice-president Bill Daly said it wasn't a step the league was prepared to take, until talks blew up yesterday.
"When the season is officially cancelled, it will be incumbent on us, as it would be for all businesses, to look at our alternatives and to make appropriate business judgements," Daly said. "I won't say that would involve opening our doors to replacements, but we'll look at all alternatives."
That strong hint was not seen as the next challenge to union solidarity by senior director Ted Saskin.
"It's their (owners') choice," Saskin said.
A source at the Ontario Ministry of Labour says it's likely the replacement issue would play out in the U.S. first before teams such as the Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators would seek rulings.