Now and again fans and media mention the idea of replacement players in the NHL, either as a means of kickstarting the season or kickstarting negotiations.
In April of 1992, during the ten day players’ strike, Oilers president Glen Sather said that Edmonton would play the following season even if it meant filling the roster with replacements.
In March of 2005, following a Board of Governors meeting, the owners announced that the 2005-2006 NHL season would start on time and then they dropped not-so-subtle hints that replacement players would be hired if it came to that.
Fortunately, in hockey it has never come to that. And we should hope it never does. Not only should we not be expected to pay NHL money to watch replacement players play NHL hockey, but replacement players face a decision none of us would want to make: Say no and stand beside a union a member of which you are not—and may never be—or take the NHL gig because you have bills to pay. Not unlike baseball’s infamous 1919 Black Sox, when replacement players die their media obituary will inevitably recall—either in the headline or in the text—that they were replacement players.
As we’ve already witnessed, labor stoppages in any capacity hurt those who can least afford it. If the NHL ever decided it would seek replacement players, they would be setting up some hard-working minor league hockey players for a lifetime of wearing sport’s equivalent of the Scarlett Letter. As pawns of ownership, they would be hired and fired according to convenience, and at least as long as Donald Fehr heads the union, they would never gain PA membership (but they would probably have to pay membership dues anyway).
Under Fehr, baseball’s replacement players—meaning the ones who eventually landed roster spots in the Majors—were permanently barred from union membership, barred from union meetings, denied their share of MLB licensing cash (about $30,000 annually in the 1990s) and their names were omitted from official team merchandise. Their only crime was to play during spring training. They didn’t suit up for a single regular season game.
Many of the replacement players have said that they were threatened by owners either to play for them as replacements or give up any hope of ever reaching the Majors. I think more than a few NHL owners would embrace this tactic.
On that cheery note, here’s a shortlist for that brave entrepreneur of the future who has the poor judgment to build a Hall of Fame for Replacement Players.
The Replacement Players Hall of Fame
Robinson was in prison in the fall of 1987 on a cocaine charge when the Redskins negotiated with prison officials to get him on their replacement roster. The quarterback led Washington to a 13-7 win on Monday Night Football over a Dallas Cowboys team that included Tony Dorsett, Randy White and about 8-10 other regulars who had crossed the picket line. It was the last game of the infamous NFL strike, and it is still regarded as one of the great upsets in football history (and was the subject of a movie). Following the game, Robinson went back to prison.
Williams is something of an exception to the rule. The former Baylor cornerback signed with Dallas during the 1987 strike but managed to remain on the team when it was over. He would play cornerback for the Cowboys for another six season and win a pair of Super Bowls in the process. However, like most other replacement players who transitioned with the league after the work stoppage, he has actively avoided ever discussing his replacement experience with the media.
Ron Mahay spent 14 seasons in Major League Baseball, beginning in 1997 with the Boston Red Sox and finishing with the Minnesota Twins in 2010. Mahay was a middle reliever with a lifetime 3.83 ERA and a record of 27-12. He’s included because when he retired in 2010 he was the last of baseball’s replacements. Mahay’s 14 seasons in the MLB are the longest of them all (Rick Reed notwithstanding). And when he retired, he was pulling in a $4 million salary.
In 1987, the future co-founder of Death Row Records, who helped make Snoop and Tupac hip-hop legends, who allegedly hung Vanilla Ice from his heels outside a hotel window, suited up for a pair of games as a scab for the Los Angeles Rams.
Who knew a gesture as simple as raising your arms would cause such a ruckus? Replacement Side Judge Lance Easley’s touchdown call gave the Seattle Seahawks the last-second win over Green Bay on Monday Night Football and did more to end the referee lockout than anything else. The banker from Santa Maria, California stood by his call as a guest on The Today Show, which says a couple of things: one, we should expect him to stand by his call because he had no professional experience, and two, with nothing to lose Easley can go on The Today Show and collect his 15 minute of fame, something no replacement athlete, no matter how fame-hungry, would ever do.