Replacement players could solve NHL owners' problems, end lockout

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to the media in New York, N.Y., Sept. 13, 2012. (CARLO...

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to the media in New York, N.Y., Sept. 13, 2012. (CARLO ALLEGRI/Reuters)

JOE WARMINGTON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:03 AM ET

TORONTO - 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.”

It worked for the NFL in 1987.

In fact, after third week of replacement players, the crowd at old RFK stadium in Washington were chanting to the players on the picket line “stay on strike.”

The players came back soon after with their tails between their legs and a new agreement that favoured the owners.

“This is not my idea and I am not saying I like any of this,” explained Watters. “You asked me the question and I am giving you my answer. If the owners replaced the players, how long would it be before most of the regular players would be back? I think it would be within two days.”

It certainly would be a good test of millionaire, union-brother solidarity!

“It’s not something the NHL has tried before but I can guarantee you they have the capability and wherewithal to do it,” said Watters. “There are lots of players out there willing to play and there will be lots of players not playing that will run back. No one is talking about it yet but you can guarantee it’s on their list.

“Donald Fehr is mistaken if he thinks this will get settled for an outdoor game in Michigan in January that they could just as easily play a year later.”

Neither side in this dispute have commented so far on the possibility of a loss of the season — let alone a shortened one with replacements.

However, Watters points out, dealing with a take-no-prisoners former baseball labour leader like Fehr, it’s something he can guarantee for worried owners “is on their list.”

When it comes to winning and losing, with tough people against each other, anything and everything could happen.

Who knows, maybe a barnstorming league with NHL superstars that could kill any replacement player game?

Neither NHL or the union are commenting so far.

While some key NHL players already plan to replace the league by going to play in Europe, it only makes sense there will be discussions about the league just replacing the current players and testing their loyalty.

It’s not exactly collegial for NHL MVP Evgeni Malkin, of the Pittsburgh Penguins, to go play abroad. Even teammate Sidney Crosby hinted through his agent Monday he could perhaps at some point look at it, too.

The owners don’t have to take that from their marquee mercenaries. But one former player said such an idea would “damage” the game beyond repair. Both sides seem to know a thing about doing just that.

Whatever happens, no business, management or labour, can be smug about its customers or competitors.

What’s to stop the Russian KHL, which now has 26 teams in seven countries, from starting its own North American division and attracting both players and fans hungry for hockey?

It would be a new kind of Cold War!

The NHL can’t mess around for long this time. There comes a point where you don’t flirt with fate too often. Things change. Markets change. Demographics change. People change.

Perhaps — one of these times — the fans of this high priced form of entertainment will drift off into something else. Careful. It does happen. There are lots of big businesses that were operational during the last lockout which are now no longer in business today.

But “scab” players playing in NHL uniforms as early as this hockey season?

It’s no more radical an idea than cancelling the Stanley Cup again.


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