The Winter Classic is promoted as the game that brings hockey back to its roots outdoors. While those of us in places like Colorado are not surrounded by pond hockey like Canadians, the sentiment that the youth ideal of hockey may be able to save the sport has romantic elements. With an NHL lockout looming over the 2012-2013 season, the biggest bargaining chip on the table is the outdoor game January 1st, 2013, in the University of Michigan’s football stadium, between the Detroit Redwings and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In the off-ice battle between the NHL owners and the NHL Players Association, a large divide looks likely to push the NHL past the expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) on September 15th. If this happens, the owners have promised to lockout the players and start another nuclear winter for the NHL. Their last lockout obliterated the 2004-2005 season.
Currently, the owners hold a lot of power. If the NHL has to sacrifice a couple of months to get the players to take a huge pay cut, then they would gladly do so. In then end, they would save more money in the process. However, the Winter Classic is the official kickoff of the league’s $200 million dollar television contract with NBC. This year’s Winter Classic alone will generate millions of dollars in ad revenue and tickets sales for the 110,000-seat stadium. This is the game that gives the players leverage.
Currently, the players make the same amount of money whether or not the Winter Classic is played. They could care less if the game is canceled and have a compelling reason to wait until that moment to see if the owners fold. Their argument in the CBA negotiations is based on the fact that they took huge pay cuts in the last agreement and the league’s revenue has tripled since that time to become a three billion dollar industry.
If no agreement is finalized to save the Winter Classic, look for the season to be canceled. The owners and commissioner Gary Bettman will likely squander the entire season again if their demands are not met. If this comes to pass, what would be the lasting effects on the league? Count Bettman and company are terrible at promoting the NHL and creating good PR. It is hard to imagine a healthy league next year without playing hockey this year.