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Could NHL replacement players break the NHLPA?

Greg Wyshynski
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Sending in the scabs would be the nuclear option for the National Hockey League and its owners during the 2012-13 lockout.

It was a tactic that was discussed back in the 2005 work stoppage, but the talk was about beginning the following season with replacement players. The scabs weren't seriously entertained as a way to break the union during the eventually cancelled 2004-05 campaign.

But might that change this time around?

Former Toronto Maple Leafs assistant GM and NHL insider Bill Watters has been sounding on the alarm on replacement players for weeks. On Josh Rimer's "Nitecap" show Monday night (video here — 17-minute mark), Watters fleshed out his scab theory — describing it as one way Gary Bettman could fracture the union.

[Nicholas J. Cotsonika: Last chance for NHL, NHLPA to strike best deal for both sides]

"Don't be surprised if that pops up if we're still talking about this on the 15th of November or Thanksgiving," he said.

Could it work?

From Rimer's show, Watters said:

"I thought, well, what can Bettman do? It's not so much that he'll get replacement players. Simply, they have a reserve list of 50 players — 23 of whom play in the National Hockey League, and 27 of whom are available to play, either as American League Players or juniors.

"They won't get any from Sweden, I doubt, because they're under contract. But if in fact they have players over there under NHL contracts, they will come. Then you have free agents from this past season, and then you will have those players that are now in the NHLPA, and they're in the last year of their contract. They'll have to sit down with their wife and their family and say, 'What do I get out of this if I serve out my time and miss another year?'"

"I think the potential of people crossing the line is significant. And that's what the whole game is about: Bettman is going to hope to crack the union. And as soon as Fehr notices a crack — and he'll hear it, because it'll be significant — he's going to sit down and negotiate a deal. And if Bettman doesn't get the response that he wants, he's going to have to change his gameplan, and go for another year's lockout.

"With that, Bettman will be gone, for sure. Donald Fehr will end up with nothing. And they'll have to continue during the summer of next to settle a deal. I just don't see that happening. I see a settlement of some description coming in December."

"It's the only option Bettman will have when he postpones the Michigan game."

We previously covered the replacement player issue here. Basically, the owners would be gambling that fans are so hockey starved that they'll swallow anything that looks like te NHL; that the logo on the front will trump any of the random names on the back; that sponsors, media partners and other groups will treat a scab season like it matters; and that the move would, in fact, break the union.

A few weeks back, it seemed completely implausible that a fan would accept a replacement player in their favorite team's sweater. Today, there seems to be more backlash against the players — see the Krys Barch affair. But would it be enough to convince fans to pay for an inferior product as a protest vote?

The bigger question: Would scabs bloody the League's reputation so much that they wouldn't be worth the trouble?

Ask Donald Fehr.

In 1995, Major League Baseball tried to crack Fehr's union with replacement players. Fehr was undaunted by the threat, telling the SF Chronicle at the time:

"You will see perhaps a vanishingly small number that will go in. Those that do, I think, will tend to be players who have concluded they have no major-league career. That is to say, they can't get there on their own. They may have the opportunity to play in a major-league stadium, but I don't think anybody's going to confuse it with a major-league game."

Remember: The 1995 replacement players plan by MLB featured respected managers like Sparky Anderson refusing to coach them. There's no telling what the backlash might be from the hockey world.

Especially after sports fans witnessed the inferior, chaotic and embarrassing spectacle of scab referees in the NFL. Do we really need ESPN's nightly critique of pedestrian, amateurish hockey?

But to the essential question: Would this break the union?

You'd no doubt see some players cross the picket line, mainly those players without contracts at the moment. But even then, will the hundred or so players in Europe be compelled to return? And would the fans even give a scab league a glance?

We're guessing "no" on both counts. And hoo boy, just want for the Canadian media to chime in if and when the Stanley Cup could be awarded to a bunch of replacement players.

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