As of 2pm today, the NHL has cancelled the upcoming Winter Classic between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings at the Big House on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. This is not a surprise, as many writers and bloggers alike felt this was coming once the NHL and NHLPA broke a few weeks ago without a deal or any seemingly significant steps toward one.
Yet, despite the NHL’s cancellation of their crown jewel of an event, yes, it is bigger than the Stanley Cup, the general notion that the cancellation season will soon follow is not necessarily true.
There are a few reasons for this, but two stand out above all others.
First, the Winter Classic is the event on the NHL’s schedule, and has been every year since its inception. This one was going to be the biggest yet, not only because the Big House holds over 100,000 people, but because Toronto and Detroit were playing and those are objectively two of the biggest fan bases in the NHL.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have seen the ice twice for their star power, but they simply cannot compete with the fan bases of the Leafs and Red Wings (yet). This Classic was going to be the largest and most majestic of them all, never mind the Hockeytown Winter Festival at Comerica Park in downtown Detroit that would have seen a multitude of games spanning three weeks, including two OHL contests, an AHL contest and the Alumni Game.
With all of this in mind, as stated by ESPN’s Katie Strang this afternoon on Twitter, the NHL couldn’t afford to push this in a marred season:
#CBA The WC is NHL’s signature event and supposed to be a celebration of the game. Tough idea to sell after lockout/during shortened season
— Katie Strang (@KatieStrangESPN) November 2, 2012
As much as the Classic means to the entire NHL, this is one the league simply could not afford to put on given the uncertain state of the game when the CBA is finalized. Would the Big House likely be full to the brim with screaming Wings and Leafs fans? Absolutely. But no fan wants a Winter Classic between two Original Six teams whose beginnings were marred in a labor dispute. The league would not put its whole heart into it, and the game, and the fan’s experience of the game, would suffer because of it.
Never mind the fact that the NHL needed to make another deposit to the University of Michigan this week.
Second, as of early this evening it seems that the NHL and NHLPA have realized that they have finally lost something huge and are going to make an effort to get on the ice as soon as possible.
Darren Dreger posted on Twitter this extremely positive piece of information:
As we just discussed on Sportscentre. NHL advised PA it will absorb share of Make Whole provision. This is a considerable concession.
— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) November 2, 2012
If you have been following the CBA negotiations at all you know that this is a huge step in the right direction. The NHLPA was not against the proposed 50-50 split the NHL offered a few weeks ago. Their issue was with the fact that the NHL’s rosy-sounding “Make Whole” provision was using the player’s money to do so, not the owners’.
In other words, the owners were saying that the players would be compensated for this upcoming year’s reduction in pay by the other players whose salaries were being cut, not by the owners who agreed to pay those salaries in the first place.
It’s certainly not hard to see why the players were not too fond of this proposal.
It has been said that if the players receive a “soft-landing,” or are gradually brought down to 50-50 over the first two to three years of the new CBA, the CBA would be signed tomorrow. With the owners agreeing to absorb some of the costs of this Make Whole provision, that is exactly what is happening.
As Dreger further stated, there is work to be done on the ins and outs of that concession, but it is a huge step nonetheless. Cynical folks may say this is another NHL sideshow, but now that they have lost their marquee event, the owners and Gary Bettman cannot fool around anymore. The cancellation of the Winter Classic has already put enough of a black eye on the sport to play the “which side is the fan on” game any more.
Yes, there has not been any official talks in awhile, but look for those doors to open up soon, especially with the NHL making the concession they did today. If the season was truly over, this sort of news would not be coming out and the NHL and NHLPA would not be actively trying to get a deal done in the wake of today’s depressing news.
Chins up, hockey fans. There may be some hope yet.