By Stu Hackel
[UPDATE: The KHL deal with ESPN to show games from that league as discussed below has not been finalized and, until it is, the scheduled games listed in the item will not be shown on ESPN3. More on that in this blog post.]
With the NHL and NHLPA having trouble figuring out just what constitutes Hockey Related Revenue during Tuesday's negotiations, it's probable that the first few weeks of regular season games will have to be officially cancelled or, at least, postponed. It's not good news.
With that in mind, here's a little roundup of lockout-related items.
Picking Scabs: One of the more abhorrent rumors circulating about the current labor impasse was started by former Maple Leafs assistant GM Bill Watters who, most recently during a streamed internet program on Monday night, raised the possibility of replacement players coming into the NHL in November as a means for Commissioner Gary Bettman to end the players' resistance to the league's contract offer.
Listening to the interview (which you can do here around the 17 minute mark), it sounds as if Watters came by this idea rather innocently. He says it was brought up to him by a newspaper man, Joe Warmington of The Toronto Sun, as something to think about. Reading the story that Warmington wrote a couple of weeks ago in which Watters discusses using scab players, the notion sounds like it was Watters' to begin with.
Regardless, which of the two came up with it -- or if it was planted with one as a trial balloon or warning from someone on the owners' side -- doesn't matter. Replacement players are now part of the lockout's conversation and it takes the ongoing labor dispute someplace it has not gone before, into very dangerous territory.
Watters, in a somewhat incoherent, rambling fashion, lays out a scenario he calls "highly improbable, but quite possible" (how's that for a non sequitur?) in which the league could recruit some players who are not on NHL rosters and induce some who are locked out, mainly older players who may be at the end of their careers, to break ranks.
"I think the potential for people crossing the line is significant," Watters says and he believes it could be the only way to end the impasse. He thinks "the only option Bettman has" once he postpones the Winter Classic would be to call for replacements. That would cause a break in the unity of the NHLPA, he theorizes, and force Don Fehr to the negotiate the deal the owners want. Watters believes that if Bettman "doesn't get the response he wants (by calling for replacement players), he's going to have to change his game plan," because if the entire season is lost, the commissioner will be fired and the stalemate will drag on, so the only path available is to once again maneuver to break the union.
Of course, the league modifying its negotiating position and trying to reach a settlement that way doesn't enter into his thinking at all.
The sordid history of replacements in sports just had a sorry new chapter written with the NFL's use of replacement officials, and the NFL ended up burning itself and its reputation in that little affair. The mere threat of putting a substandard product on the ice, one draped in your favorite uniforms, would be a contemptuous move on the part of the NHL, not just toward the players but the fans. One would hope others have heeded the lesson of the NFL's error, but you can't be sure. The NFL used replacements for three weeks during the 1987 players strike and even though they attracted small crowds, substantially lower TV ratings and the quality of play was suspect, the union surrendered. The NHL owners may consider it a tempting tactic, but it's a nuclear option that, for hockey -- which lacks football's widespread appeal in the U.S. -- would likely cause more problems than it solves.
Additionally, Watters seems to have no concept of what the consequences might be, and how it might put people -- in this case, the replacements -- at very serious risk. NBC's Pierre McGuire does understand, as he told his Team 1200 radio audience out of Ottawa Tuesday morning (audio).
"I have no appetite for replacement players being part of this," McGuire said. "I have too much respect for the men that make their living in the league as players today. I think that would be one of the most amazingly silly things the league could do and I can just not see that happening. I can't see players -- and players know because they live in that world every day -- players know that if you ever were a replacement player, whatever your life expectancy as a player was left would be terrible. Every time you went on the ice, you would be a targeted guy. It's survival of the fittest to begin with. It'd be terrible." And McGuire added that he wouldn't broadcast games if replacement players were involved, an admirable stand on principle that hopefully has been heard by anyone contemplating that tactic.
Potential replacements themselves probably understand the serious risks they'd take, so this destructive dream of attracting enough players to form scab NHL teams is fanciful at best. Let's hope Bill Watters' rant is the product of his thinking alone and that it ends with him.
Hockey Night In Moscow: If you need your live hockey fix featuring some NHL stars, you may be able to get it. The KHL and ESPN have reached an agreement to show selected games over ESPN3, the channel streamed to online customers (and on TV in some cable systems) in the U.S. and its territories and in Great Britain. Alex Ovechkin and his Dynamo Moscow mates take on Ak Bars Kazan with former Penguin Alexei Morozov on Wednesday, and the early schedule offers a daily game starting this Saturday and running through Tuesday.
The plan is to have English language commentary for these games, although just who will be sitting in Bristol and calling the game off a monitor has not been announced just yet.
Here's the schedule that's been released so far and (attention Caps fans!) Ovie's club is a big part of it:
Dynamo Moscow vs Ak Bars on Oct. 3
Lev vs SKA on Oct. 6
Slovan vs Dynamo Moscow on Oct. 7
CSKA vs SKA on Oct. 8
Lev vs Dynamo Moscow on Oct. 9
Lev Prague -- the Prague Lions -- the new team of Zdeno Chara, is featured twice. So is SKA, the St. Petersburg club with Ilya Kovalchuk and ex-NHLers Maxim Afinogenov, Petr Prucha, Alexei Semenov, Patrick Thoresen, Dmitri Kalinin and Kevin Dallman. (The former captain of Barys Astana, the KHL team in Kazakhstan, Dallman signed with SKA after he couldn't get a new contract with his former club, or at least that's the official story. It was speculated that his deal with Barys Astana was terminated after his wife Stacy wrote some critical remarks about life in Kazakhstan in a blog post, she was expelled from the country, and he no longer wanted to play there. It's a strange place...but at least they're playing over there.)
"It’s a curious move for a network that has largely shunned hockey ever since ending its broadcast agreement with the NHL nearly a decade ago," writes James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail, "but a sign that there may in fact be some value in showing games featuring its players during the lockout." And Mirtle believes that a Canadian network may forge some sort of deal with the KHL eventually.
While this is good news for the KHL, which has been seeking more North American exposure for its games, it's really unclear how many fans will actually tune in past their initial curiosity. There's an eight-hour difference between Moscow Time and Eastern Standard Time, so if the games are shown live, for example, the puck drops for Wednesday's tilt at 12:45 PM. One of the constant concerns that NHL types have about creating a European division is how the time change will affect viewership, and the league has expressed the same worry about its participation in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. And the Detroit Red Wings have long complained about the number of games that they have to play in the Pacific time zone because their fans don't or can't stay up late to watch them.
Will millions of hockey-starved Americans in the East actually use their lunch breaks -- and will those out West carve out some morning time -- to catch the exploits of Lubomir Visnovski and his Slovan Bratislava club? Will hundreds? Dozens? No matter, it's live hockey. And I hope they show a Lokomotiv game from Yaroslavl. I'll skip lunch for that.
Senators Have Their Say: Concerned about what the absence of Devils games will do to the already fragile economy of Newark, New Jersey's two U.S. Senators sent a letter to both Gary Bettman and Don Fehr calling for a settlement.
Senators Frank R. Lautenberg and Robert Menendez wrote, “A delayed or canceled regular season would be a major setback for Newark. It could mean millions of dollars in lost economic activity, and more people out of work when our state unemployment rate is already at a 30-year high.
"Newark is not unique -- communities across the country have tied their economies to professional hockey.” the Senators added. “As you consider your next steps, we encourage you to keep in mind the communities, workers, and families that would be hurt by a further disruption in the season.”
The Senators continued, “Businesses, workers and hockey fans played no role in causing this dispute, and it is unfair for them to have to bear this burden. The Senate has jurisdiction over interstate commercial activities, including professional sports, and will keep a close eye on your negotiations with hope that you will work diligently and quickly to resolve this matter.”
The letter won't move either side an inch, but it's better than saying nothing.