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Detroit's Hockeytown Festival now in lockout's crosshairs

Comerica Park Hockeytown Festival Detroit's Comerica Park was set to host games between NHL alumni in addition to major junior, college, high school and youth teams. (Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

It's Day 45 of the lockout, and the NHL season is still being held hostage. The owners and players are not talking and optimism remains in short supply. Each side claims it is the one that has made concessions and it accuses the other of wanting the lockout and being unwilling to compromise. Meanwhile, the schedule has started to evaporate and, as Helene Elliott wrote in The Los Angeles Times, "The NHL put the 'no' in November and continued its determined march toward irrelevance by canceling games through Nov. 30."

Where do things go from here? That was the question Michael Russo of The Minneapolis Star-Tribune posed in an extended Q&A to NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr, who responded, "I don’t know the answer, and believe me, I wouldn’t keep it to myself if I did."

“Seems like we are back at Square One," NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Day told Russo.

Now, as has been widely reported, the Winter Classic is likely to get chopped before this week ends. That doesn't necessarily mean the league will cancel all games through January 1. It's probable that the Red Wings-Maple Leafs game set for New Year's Day will remain on the docket and be moved to Joe Louis Arena. But cancelling the outdoor game reflects the contractual arrangements that the NHL has with the University of Michigan for use of the Big House.

The league gave the school a $100,000 deposit that's apparently non-refundable at this point. But starting Nov. 2, the NHL is on the hook for any expenses the school incurs in connection with the Winter Classic should the game be canceled. In addition, the league is scheduled on Friday to fork over another $250,000 installment toward the $3 million rental fee. So all the signs point to the NHL saving the money and tanking the event.

Even if a settlement is reached soon, it seems as if the NHL won't plan a rescheduled Classic once we reach Friday. Bill Daly told Jeff Klein of The New York Times that "there is no ‘resurrection’ scenario for this year.”

Klein wrote, "Union officials have said privately that they expected the league to cancel the Winter Classic early as a pressure tactic." It appears that the financial realities the league faces certainly indicate the time to cancel the game is sooner rather than later.

But Frank Seravalli of The Philadelphia Daily News questions the necessity of a cancellation in early November. He reports, "According to the contract, the NHL can cancel the Winter Classic up until the day of the event, pretty much without penalty. With the exception of the $100,000 paid up front, every dollar toward the venue rental fee is refundable....For the NHL to walk away from $100,000 at the University of Michigan on Dec. 1 would be like one of us dropping a $20 on a bad bet. You pick up the pieces and move on.

"The Winter Classic is the NHL's marquee regular-season event, the time of year when most casual hockey fans actually believe the season starts. For the die-hard fan, it is a triumphant celebration of what makes the game great. To cancel the game this week would be a slap in the face to all - including the players - and a sign to start looking for something else to cheer for this winter."

No Winter Classic means the Hockeytown Festival will be a goner, too. Those events, conceived as downtown Detroit components slated for Comerica Park and connected with the big game in Ann Arbor -- two games between the Red Wings and Maple Leafs alumni on Dec. 31; the Great Lakes Invitational college tourney featuring Michigan, Michigan State, Western Michigan and Michigan Tech on Dec. 27-28; an AHL contest between the Grand Rapids Griffins and Toronto Marlies on Dec. 30; and a pair of OHL games (Windsor Spitfires vs. Saginaw Spirit, and Plymouth Whalers vs. London Knights) on Dec. 29, along with numerous high school and youth league games -- seem doomed in light of the email that Red Wings Senior Director of Communications John Hahn emailed to Crain's Detroit Business last week which said the Festival would take place only if the Winter Classic was played.

The Big House game was expected to attract more than 100,000 fans, making it the biggest crowd ever to see a professional hockey game. It also represents about a $15 million payday to the NHL, according to David Shoalts of The Globe and Mail.

But, as we noted last February when the Winter Classic was announced, the activities at Comerica Park would have given an additional injection of money to the troubled city of Detroit and were championed by the Illitch family, who own the Red Wings. Helene St. James of The Detroit Free Press reported that the Comerica events were a trade-off for the Wings agreeing to have their game against the Leafs take place in Ann Arbor with the league funding and operating the construction of the rink at the Tigers' ballpark. So the NHL would have a role, perhaps the decisive one considering its financial obligation, in canceling the Hockeytown Festival.

Cancellation announcements will prove incorrect those people who felt at the outset of the discord between the NHL and the NHLPA that things would return to normal in time for the Winter Classic, and that the event -- with its HBO and NBC exposure -- is too important to the league and the players to be allowed to vanish. It's a view to which I didn't subscribe and as I wrote in August, the CBA disagreement looked like "a recipe for no season at all."

It still does.

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