W hen the NHL locked out players on September 16 when a new collective bargaining agreement could not be reached, they were the second North American major league sport to fall into a lockout.
At the same time the NHL began their lockout, the NFL was in what would become a widely publicized lockout of league referees.
The NFL had began their regular season a week prior to the NHL declaring a lockout and had played the first week of the season with replacement referees.
As major college football referees refused to cross the picket line, the NFL was forced to resort to hiring castoffs from such pinnacles of professional sport as the Lingerie Football League. Needless to say, the experiment didn’t work. The replacement officials appeared to have such a tiny grasp of the rules…and really of the sport in general…that by the end of the third week of the season, most game stories had become about the officials and not about the games themselves. Blown calls affected outcomes of games and the NFL was left with a black eye…or at the very least, a somewhat irritated one.
The embarrassment caused by the underwhelming performance of the replacement officials forced the league’s hand. Shortly after an exceptionally glaring blown call in a Seahawks-Packers Monday Night Football game, the league worked around the clock to make a deal with the officials to have them back by the fourth week of the season.
The NHL could conceivably find itself in a similar situation.
As the NHL lockout inches closer to D-Day, the 2012-13 season’s scheduled opening day, a large portion of NHL players have taken off overseas to play in various European leagues.
All of this has happened before and – it seems – will happen again. By heading to Europe, the players give little indication that the standoff between the league and the NHLPA will be a short one.
After losing all of the 2004-05 season to a lockout, losing a large portion of the 2012-13 season could be the league’s death knell.
Owners may come to a point where they feel that the only way for the NHL to survive is to field teams made up of has-beens and never-wases.
If the league hits December still in a lockout, one can expect the replacement talk to pick up steam. It has been the “official PuckScene stance” that if the Winter Classic is lost, so goes the season. If the league is to continue to survive in its current form, having the season kick off in time for the Winter Classic to be played is almost imperative.
The rub in this case is obviously the players. No player worth their salt to any other player will cross the line to play as a “scab”. In order to have games, unsigned free agents and lower tier minor leaguers would have to fill the team’s rosters as replacement players. The product on the ice would be that of a beer league…and the attendance after the first week or two would probably not be much better. Make no bones about it – if the NHL ever opts to use replacement players, the product on the ice will almost certainly be terrible.
However, given the state of affairs, a league that is playing unwatchable, unbearable action in front of bored-out-of-their-mind crowds would be preferable to a dead league.
Hey…it worked for the NBA.
To date, the only North American professional sports league ever to make it into the regular season with replacements was the NFL during the 1987 season. In 1987, the NFLPA went on a 24-day strike after the second week of the season. The NFL cancelled one week of games before playing three weeks with rosters made largely of replacement players. About the only memorable thing to come out of the NFL’s brief replacement era was a Keanu Reeves movie.
Major League Baseball came dangerously close to entering a regular season in 1995 with replacements as well, having made it to Spring Training with them. However, the strike ended before the regular season began and allowed the permanent players to reassert their positions on their respective rosters.
In the NHL’s case, replacement players would not be a viable solution for success…not in the least bit. It is a move no one wants to see – it’s a desperate bubble-gum-on-a-leak type move.
However, replacement players may end up becoming necessary for the NHL’s survival.