Once in a while, even the NHL stumbles upon the perfect scenario.
So it seemed, as hockey fans conjured images of the 2013 Winter Classic: A record-breaking crowd of 110,000 people jammed into Michigan Stadium, the Big House, to see the Toronto Maple Leafs play the Detroit Red Wings on New Year’s Day, a few flurries dancing in the air, enhancing the romantic notion of old-time, outdoor hockey.
Cue the all-time greats, rosy-cheeked in the brisk Michigan breeze, as they’re introduced to the masses: Gordie Howe, Red Kelly, Frank Mahovlich, Steve Yzerman … on and on … and when the goosebumps register, fans don’t know if it’s from the chills or the thrills.
In six short years, the Winter Classic has become the single most important hockey property in America, and NBC had proudly speculated this tilt between Original Six teams in Ann Arbor would draw the largest television audience in NHL history. Far from a one-day event, the Classic included a two-week Winter Festival, beginning Dec. 16 in Detroit, a city that has been ravaged by the recent economic downturn and figured to reap more than $30 million in spinoff benefits.
There is so much more to consider with the Classic, including an old-timers event, nine outdoor games to be played at Comerica Park, involving college, AHL and OHL teams, plus the always popular behind-the-scenes HBO 24/7 TV series building up to the Classic.
But first, this bulletin: THE WINTER CLASSIC AND ALL THAT IT ENTAILS HAS BEEN KILLED, STRUCK DOWN BY A DIMINUTIVE ASSAILANT.
On Friday afternoon, the game became the latest victim of the sporting world’s dumbest labour conflict — the NHL and players’ association failure to figure out a way to divide $3.3 billion in hockey-related revenues.
This is a league that truly hates prosperity, where a hat trick is no longer a hockey term but refers to the lockout track record of commissioner Gary Bettman.
It wasn’t enough that the NHL cancelled all scheduled games in October and all games in November: Now this vital piece of the league’s bedrock has been pulled out from beneath the NHL’s house of cards. The self-destruction ensues, before a gathering of no-longer-surprised witnesses.
“The logistical demands for staging events of this magnitude made (Friday’s) decision unavoidable,” said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly in a statement. “We simply are out of time.”
Guess what? The players disagree. In a Players Association statement sent to the Citizen and other media, executive director Don Fehr called the cancellation “unnecessary and unfortunate, as was the owners’ implementation of the lockout itself.”
Fehr added: “We look forward to the league’s return to the bargaining table, so that the parties can find a way to end the lockout at the earliest possible date, and get the game back on the ice for the fans.”
By the way, the league would ask that those fans kindly cling to those sentimental Winter Classic thoughts, if not the actual ticket stubs, for a year or so. Collective Bargaining Agreement willing, the NHL says it will stage the next outdoor event in Michigan, carefully avoiding using the 2014 date. What, the league isn’t sure the lockout will be settled by then?
How much long-term damage this latest indignity wreaks on the NHL is not yet clear, but we do know that the news was greeted with heightened disdain on Twitter and in blog posts, no small feat considering how annoyed fans have been for the past two months of the lockout.
In fact, mixed among the angered and embarrassed multitude there seems a larger number rather bemused by the carnage, the type we presume also enjoy watching train wrecks and NASCAR crashes. With the hashtag #nhlcancels, they sarcastically noted that the league would now cancel everything from … “Christmas” to “Life” to “Children’s dreams.”
“When will the billionaires talk to the millionaires?” chimed in CBC business correspondent Amanda Lang on her twitter account. “Canadians want their Cup back!”
Many Senators fans also expressed a wish of getting their team back.
Too many others have already turned away in apathy from the NHL, immune to any further bad news.
Seasoned lockout observers had speculated the Winter Classic might somehow salvage the 2012-13 season, if only the event itself could be spared. Instead, the idea that the classic was leverage players could use in negotiations may have spurred the NHL’s quick cancellation, although there were financial and logistical factors involved.
There is another consideration: so poisoned are the waters between the league and its players, there was little chance the ill will would subside by New Year’s Day, even if a miracle CBA were to be hammered out this month. In other words, the NHL wanted to avoid tarnishing what should be an unbridled hockey celebration at its signature event.
Daly and Steve Fehr, Donald’s brother, are expected to talk this weekend to decide if there is reason for the two sides to meet next week. No rush, fellas, but if something is not resolved soon, it will be time to agree with American sports blogger Bill Simmons, who called the NHL the: “Dumbest. League. Ever.”