Replacement an issue in Canada

Canadiens and Canucks would be barred by law from hiring fill-in players

Hockey

February 18, 2005|By Ed Waldman | Ed Waldman,SUN STAFF

If the NHL decides to open the 2005-06 season with replacement players, two of its Canadian teams most likely wouldn't be able to play any home games.

Provincial labor laws in Quebec and British Columbia prohibit companies from hiring replacements to fill in for striking or locked-out workers. That means the NHL's most storied franchise, the Montreal Canadiens, and the Vancouver Canucks at the very least could not play games at their home arenas.

Labor laws in Ontario and Alberta, the homes to the four other Canadian franchises, are similar to those in the United States. Those teams could employ replacements.

"In Quebec and British Columbia, you can't even use the employees who are on strike if they cross the picket line," John C. O'Reilly, a partner in the Toronto-based law firm of Cassels Brock & Blackwell, said yesterday. "The only way that you can operate is if management effectively does the work of the bargaining unit employees, which in this case obviously isn't going to happen."

What could happen, though, is that the league could schedule the Canadiens and Canucks for a 20-game road trip to start the season. Or their home games could be moved to a city where the labor laws are more friendly to management.

On Wednesday, the NHL became the first major professional sports league in North America to cancel its entire season because of a labor dispute. The 30 team owners locked out their players Sept. 16, saying they couldn't continue to operate under the current business model. They needed a salary cap that was linked to team revenues, they said.

The league's 700 players, represented by the National Hockey League Players Association, did not agree to consider a salary cap until Monday night, and the sides could not get a deal done.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Wednesday that the league planned to play again beginning in the fall, but he did not directly answer questions about the use of replacement players. The NHL would examine its options and make those decisions later, he said.

Yesterday, NHL spokesman Frank Brown reiterated the league's desire to get a deal done "with our union and the player base that's there right now. They are the ones we want."

And even though everyone was let down by the failure to save at least a portion of this season, the urgency to get a settlement is still there, he said.

"We've got a lot of damage to undo or to try to repair," Brown said. "And every second we don't have the luxury of doing it is another grain of sand in this desert of adversity that we've created."

The NHLPA did not return a phone call yesterday seeking a comment.

In order to use replacement players, the NHL would have to declare a bargaining impasse and tell the players association it intended to end the lockout and impose the terms of its last offer.

The players association, in return, could file an unfair labor complaint with the National Labor Relations Board

"That's when the fat would be in the fire," said Elbert Tellem, acting director of the New York region of the NLRB.

The NLRB doesn't have a formula to determine if an impasse has indeed been reached, Tellem said. Factors the agency uses include how long the sides have been bargaining, how many negotiating sessions there have been and what movement - if any - there has been during the talks.

Even if the NHL was successful in declaring an impasse, it could face other problems, experts said. For example, immigration laws restricting the availability of foreign players would have an impact on rosters.

The question of whether using replacement players would be a good idea is dependent on one thing, according to Dean Bonham, who runs a sports and entertainment marketing firm in Denver.

"What do the fans think?" Bonham said. "If the fans are willing to accept replacement players, then it's a great idea. If the fans aren't, then it's a bad idea. It's just that simple."

Bonham said he thinks it's possible the NHL will decide to use replacements. And he placed the blame for the loss of the season squarely on Bob Goodenow, executive director of the union.

"What Goodenow did is the most classic error you can make in negotiations," Bonham said. "He was bluffing all along. He said he would not accept a salary cap; he waited until the 11th hour to accept a salary cap. What he did by doing that is he gave the union and the league no time to figure it out in terms of how do you make a salary cap work.

"Now, if the players and the union pay a price, so be it. They had an opportunity and they screwed it up big time. So replacement players come in, somehow the union is damaged. The union has nobody to blame but themselves."

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