NHL Lockout: Could the League Turn to Replacement Players in Pro Hockey?

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NHL Lockout: Could the League Turn to Replacement Players in Pro Hockey?
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

What is the worst-case scenario for the NHL?

To most observers, it would be a repeat of the 2004-05 non-season in which competition was wiped out by the labor dispute and the NHL ultimately canceled the season.

There is little doubt that this would be a disaster for the NHL. Commissioner Gary Bettman has been talking tough since negotiations began this summer, but he has been careful not to mention the possibility of losing the full season.

He is banking on the memory of that lost 2004-05 season pushing the NHLPA into a softer negotiating stance. If it doesn't happen soon and neither side shows significant movement, whispers of a lost season will grow louder.

But could the NHL go in another direction and attempt to use replacement players to get the season started?

It may seem laughable, but it could be a tool the league uses. The idea would be to bring in enough free agents and reserve players who could fill up roster space on the NHL's 30 teams.

This move could end the stalemate and possibly break the union.

According to former Maple Leafs general manager Bill Watters, this is something that the NHL will consider. Watters told the Toronto Sun that teams could find players 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,” Watters said to Toronto Sun sportswriter Joe Warmington. “It is conceivable. It wouldn’t be a long-term thing but a union breaking move.”

The NFL used replacement players during the 1987 season.

The NFL used that move successfully 25 years ago (source: ESPN.com). During the 1987 season, NFL players decided to go out on strike during the early part of the season. The NFL hired "replacement players" to wear the uniforms and play in NFL stadiums.

While the games were played in largely empty stadiums and television ratings dipped dramatically, players returned after three replacement games (source: New York Times).

Watters told the Toronto Sun that this idea is on the NHL's list of options. One of the reasons is the presence of experienced labor leader Donald Fehr on the NHLPA's side. During his days as the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, Fehr gained a reputation as a hard-hitting and strong labor leader who would not easily be intimidated.

While Fehr no longer engages in the kind of verbal battles that increases the hostility in negotiations between the two sides, it is unlikely that he would simply cave in to owners' demands.

As a result, using replacement players could become a reality at some point for the NHL.

On the other hand, if the NHL tried to sell the public on its paper tigers, NHL players might choose to play a few barnstorming games with its striking players to draw attention away from the replacement games.

Using replacement players and playing barnstorming games would only be acts of hostility from both sides. Neither idea would help these negotiations come to a fruitful and productive finish.

One can only hope that the desire for mature negotiation is stronger than the desire to show the other side who is boss and that a real season can be saved.

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