Friday November 2nd, 2012

Gary Bettman and Winter Classic We interrupt this event to bring you the following dire announcement. (Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

As the old public relations maxim goes, "Always release bad news late on Fridays" because people will pay less attention to it once the weekend rolls around. So perhaps it is no coincidence that the NHL has dropped major cancellations on us each of the last two. Last week, it wiped out the November schedule and this time it cancelled one of its signature events -- perhaps its main regular season event -- the Winter Classic along with Detroit's Hockeytown Festival, all victims of the stalled CBA negotiations and the owners' lockout of the players.

The league made the announcement after strongly hinting last month that this bad news was forthcoming despite pleas from some people to give the CBA bargaining another shot and save the event.

There was belief that the owners might have second thoughts as recently as early Friday. That's when David Shoalts in The Globe and Mail reported that the league would push the drop dead date to at least Nov. 15. "Some sources say (NHL Commissioner Gary) Bettman believes Nov. 15 is the last possible day to make a decision because of the preparations involved for the game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings and planned for Jan. 1 at the University of Michigan’s 115,000-seat stadium," Shoalts wrote. That news, combined with word that productive informal talks had taken place this week and formal talks would restart soon, seemed to hint at a reprieve for hockey's New Year's Day spectacle and the affiliated events in Detroit.

But it was not to be.

Instead, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the cancellation was necessary because of "the logistical demands for staging events of this magnitude..... We simply are out of time."

However, while the construction of the outdoor rinks at the University of Michigan's "Big House" stadium and the Detroit Tigers' Comerica Park require time, they may not require that much time. Jeff Klein of The New York Times reported earlier this week that, "Rink-building preparations for last year’s game at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia began Nov. 21, when workers started laying down armor decking to protect the grass field. But the year before, crews did not start building the rink at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh until after the Steelers’ last home game on Dec. 23, just nine days before the Winter Classic. In 2009 at Fenway Park, rink construction began on Dec. 10."

Of course, one must consider the travel and hotel arrangements that such a huge event requires, but blocks of rooms have most likely been reserved for months in advance, and while airline tickets might be purchased closer to the event, delaying that by a couple of weeks should not have had an impact on the entire operation.

Speaking in Brooklyn last week, Commissioner Gay Bettman provided a different explanation of why the league might pull the plug. "At some point in November we will have to commit many millions of dollars to get ready for the Winter Classic, so if there’s still uncertainty, we’re going to have to make a decision," he said. "And my guess is, we’re not going to commit those dollars unless we have certainty.”

It was subsequently learned that the NHL's financial exposure to the University of Michigan was limited to the $100,000 it had already paid and, according to the cancellation policies in the contract between the league and the school (which you can read here on Page 2), the league could recover any additional fees it had paid in the event of a cancellation due to the lockout.

If there's one component of the Winter Classic that might have been harmed by the shortened lead time, it is HBO, whose annual 24/7 series provides an excellent promotion of the game, the teams involved, and the league. This production group does amazing things on a short turnaround, but it would be impossible to match the quality of their earlier series without the benefit of all the filming they do and the relationships they forge in the course of a full regular season. No one has said a diminished 24/7 would constitute a reason to pull the plug early on the Winter Classic. If they did, however, it would be a classic case of the tail wagging the dog.

What does the cancellation of the Winter Classic mean? Lots of things, the most obvious of which is that the NHL has once again committed an act of self-destruction, something it has habitually done during the course of the last few months, all in the cause of forcing the players to accept a deal they find unacceptable rather than negotiate one that both sides can live with. And that leads to an alternate explanation of why the NHL would cancel the Winter Classic along with the Hockeytown festival now.

"Union officials have said privately that they expected the league to cancel the Winter Classic early as a pressure tactic," Klein reported this week. The aim would be to demonstrate to the players that the owners are standing firm in seeking the concessions they've proposed on lowering salaries and restricting individual contracting rights and they are dug in for a long siege.

Reactions to the cancellation began surfacing after the league disclosed to some in the media this week that the move was immanent. "The pending cancellation of the Winter Classic should be a reminder that we are much closer to the season blowing up than was anticipated in the summer," wrote Kevin Allen in USA Today. "Players undoubtedly are going to say the league's decision to cancel the game constitutes scare tactics aimed at destabilizing their resolve. Regardless of whether that's true, the reality is that we are now on a countdown toward losing the entire season for the second time in less than a decade. Both sides need to pause the blame game long enough to give thought to how to resolve this mess before the button gets pushed."

"Hockey lovers are lamenting the latest NHL shutdown and the looming cancellation of the season’s Winter Classic," wrote Jeff Gordon in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "This game at Michigan Stadium, in front of 100,000-plus fans, was going to be the central piece of a much larger hockey celebration in Greater Detroit. This opportunity lost would add another black mark on Bettman's permanent record and remind everybody he is still running a Garage League."

Some of the angriest words came from Canada, which has been a spectator to previous Winter Classics, the NHL not inviting one of their Canadian-based clubs to participate until this year. "All the momentum the NHL has built with this product will be balled up and pitched into the trash the moment they mothball it," wrote Adam Proteau of The Hockey News. "It doesn’t matter whether the league offers to re-stage this year’s game in the same city whenever it comes to its senses and ends this labor farce; the bitter residue of cancelling this particular WC, in this particular season, will linger for quite some time.

"We’re talking about a Winter Classic that would have drawn more than 100,000 people to Michigan Stadium, demolishing the previous record for attendance at an NHL game. We’re talking about a significant financial infusion to a Detroit-area economy that has been battered as badly as any American city. We’re talking about two Original Six teams that have so many devoted followers, there was scheduled to be an unprecedented two NHL alumni games. We’re talking about fans so crazy about the sport, they also would’ve filled the stadium for the seven other games – two Ontario League matchups, an American League game and a four-game NCAA mini-tournament – set to be played in the days leading up to the Red Wings/Maple Leafs NHL showdown.

"Those are the people NHL brass are about to slap across the face when the 2013 Winter Classic is shelved. Unless they have the memory span of an attention-deficit-addled goldfish, those consumers are bound to look back less than fondly on a business operation that put the Charlie Brown football down for them to kick, only to quickly and callously pull it back because NHL players wouldn’t happily accept a drastic pay cut."

After the cancellation was announced, Pierre LeBrun on published a thoughtful piece contending that the atmosphere around the game is so poisonous now that trying to stage it would be pointless. It would be a half-baked operation and detract from what the events in Detroit were intended to be. "The Winter Classic is supposed to represent everything that is good in hockey, the sport back to its roots, celebrated every Jan. 1 in a way that even the most cynical media observers can’t snicker at." He also implied the decision to cancel was the Red Wings' and perhaps not the NHL's. "Even though the league would still have time to build up the infrastructure needed for the Jan. 1 game if there’s a collective bargaining agreement in place by Nov. 30," he wrote, "the Wings don’t want to be part of slapping together a half-sized version of the two-week festival it originally had in mind."

That's an interesting perspective and not at all the rationale the league presents in its most recent Friday cancellation announcement. The point is missed, however: It didn't have to come to this. It never should have come to this. But that's what can happen when one side demands victory rather than a negotiated settlement. Unless things turn around quickly, it's going to be a long winter for NHL fans, one that's already without the Winter Classic.

Ziggy's dad did it with the Wailers before him...

...and Bob got it from his biggest influence, Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions (sadly a clipped video here).

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