The NHL lockout claimed its most prominent casualty Friday when the league canceled the 2013 Winter Classic.
The outdoor showcase is the NHL’s marquee regular season contest as well as its highest-grossing individual game and was slated to feature the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs at the Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Jan. 1. The next Winter Classic will feature the same teams in the same location, according to the NHL’s announcement.
“The logistical demands for staging events of this magnitude made today’s decision unavoidable. We simply are out of time,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said in a news release. “We are extremely disappointed, for our fans and for all those affected, to have to cancel the Winter Classic and Hockeytown Winter Festival events.”
NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr expressed the union’s disappointment in a statement.
“The NHL’s decision to cancel the 2013 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic is unnecessary and unfortunate, as was the owners’ implementation of the lockout itself,” Fehr said. “The fact that the season has not started is a result of a unilateral decision by the owners; the players have always been ready to play while continuing to negotiate in good faith.”
The cancellation of the Winter Classic doesn’t mean the 2012-13 season has been lost entirely. It’s still possible for the two sides to reach an agreement and play a shortened regular season. But even if there is a speedy resolution to the lockout, the Winter Classic will not be rescheduled, according to comments from Daly earlier this week.
Gone with the Winter Classic are its revenues, a large television audience (the contest averaged 3.75 million viewers on NBC last year), complementary events such as the alumni, college and minor league games scheduled at Comerica Park in Detroit and HBO’s “24/7″ series that would have chronicled the Red Wings and Maple Leafs in the weeks leading up to the contest.
The Winter Classic is also the one regular season game that can truly draw the attention of casual sports fans, which the league has courted since losing the 2004-05 season to a labor dispute.
“It’s disappointing. It’s become a staple for our league,” Jason Chimera said Friday. “It’s one of those things that people who don’t normally watch hockey watch. It’s unfortunate that we got to this point with no progress. It’s already November and we’re losing a lot of fans, that’s the worst part of it.”
So why cancel it two months in advance? According to the contract the NHL signed with the University of Michigan, which you can check out in full on AnnArbor.com, if the Winter Classic is canceled by Nov. 2 the league forfeits only $100,000. Once that deadline passes, however, the NHL would owe the university an additional $250,000, along with any expenses the school would incur. The next deadline in the contract is Dec. 7, when the league would have owed the university another $1 million.
The Winter Classic also takes time to assemble. League crews would have been permitted to start building rinks both at the Big House and Comerica Park on as early as Dec. 1 and once those plans are set into motion they’re tough to stop.
In addition to the cost and logistical concerns, canceling the Winter Classic likely plays into a search for leverage in these stalemated labor negotiations.
Last week, the NHL canceled games through Nov. 30 and pulled its most recent offer after the deadline to save a full 82-game season expired on Oct. 25. The two sides haven’t held a formal meeting since Oct. 18, but there is some optimism that discussions are close to resuming. On Friday, the 48th day of the lockout, Daly told Chris Johnston of the Canadian Press he expected the NHL and NHLPA to meet again in the “relatively near future” but details have not yet been finalized.
If and when talks resume, a wide gulf remains between the two sides and some observers believe that the willingness to sacrifice the Winter Classic doesn’t bode well for the 2012-13 season. Across North America and Euorpe players are acknowledging their concern about losing a full year and those who already saw one season go by the wayside in 2004-05 are stunned the NHL is at this point again.
“It still amazes me that we’ve gone this long,” said Maryland native and Rangers forward Jeff Halpern. “It’s incredible. There’s no need for it. The game was doing so well, it was growing at such a great rate with fan involvement and everything. And as a hockey fan, a person in the hockey community you can’t believe this is happening again.
“You think it was such a black eye on the sport to be the only professional sports league to miss a season for a labor dispute. This time I thought everything was in place, that systems were in place to avoid this.”