Winter Classic cancelled by NHL’s latest act of self destruction

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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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  • Published On Nov 02, 2012

    I think just goes to prove that the NHL is more than willing to sacrifice long term stability for short term gains.  It's always been my thought that the only timeline the owners would fear is canceling the whole season.  If the whole season is canceled they will still get the money from the NBC deal, but NBC gets to tack an extra year onto the end of the deal for free.  The way current sports broadcasting rights are going that extra year is going to represent a lot more lost revenue then they are making right now.  It's just short sighted to stick the players now and create a revenue hole several years from now.


    In other news NBC has been quietly gobbling up live sports properties over the last few years.  In addition to their NFL coverage they now boast college football.  Last year they bought secondary rights to the MLS, and just this week the English Premiere League.  I know that some may scoff at the idea of soccer threatening hockey in terms of popularity (especially the MLS) consider this. 

    Average attendance across the league is all ready higher than in the NHL (this is a bit of apples to oranges comparison considering the NHL plays twice as many home games, and more games played per week.)

    The MLS leader in attendance the Seattle Sounders FC averaged 43,144 which is more than double the amount averaged by NHL leading Chicago at 19,557.  It's total gate of 733,441 would rank 16th and does not include attendance from friendlies and international competition. 

    Obviously Seattle ranks as a pretty serious outlier in terms of attendance figures, but six other teams averaged higher attendance per game than the Blackhawks.  More importantly this group includes teams from major media markets (Los Angeles), and significantly smaller markets (Kansas City). 

    In 2010 both hockey and soccer enjoyed nationally galvanizing moments with the Winter Olympics and the World Cup respectively.  There are no guarantees that the NHL will allow the players to continue to play in the Winter Olympics, and with the news that the United States will host a special 100th anniversary Copa America tournament.  So that leaves the potential for the MLS to receive a big boost in national exposure every other year for the next 6 years while at best the NHL will receive this exposure twice over the same time frame.

    In addition over the last decade MLS has seen teams open eleven new stadiums for which they are the primary tenant, and two multipurpose stadiums where MLS teams share with NFL teams.  Beyond this San Jose just broke ground on their new stadium, and New York, Orlando, and Detroit have varying levels of plans in place to build stadiums should they receive and expansion or relocated franchise. 

    The NHL, meanwhile, have built three, and the Islanders set to piggy back on the Net's Barclay center.  While it is true there were a lot of arenas built over the last two decades the bulk of this construction was accomplished under a different economic climate.  The MLS has built four of their stadiums since the 2008 recession.


    I'm not saying that I expect soccer to overtake hockey in popularity.  But it certainly has the potential to grow.  And NBC has shown a willingness to double down on soccer properties.  A second lost season in less than a decade might make NBC reconsider its commitment to the NHL especially  if the MLS continues to grow along with their EPL investment.  NBC might just be happy to take the money they make from a free year of NHL games, and decide to invest in more college football games and leave the NHL holding the bag trying to find another outdoor channel willing to invest in hockey.



    Any thoughts on whether the union should or would ever de-certify like in the NFL (not that it get them anywhere)?  Also, would we be any better off without a union and the corresponding ant-trust exemption that allows for the collusive "league"?


    The NHL and its ownership: Bad. Period.


    So why do the players demand "victory rather than a negotiated settlement"?  Already having guaranteed contracts liberal free agency, assurance that teams must pay 100% of the agreed-upon players' pool regardless of individual teams' cap decisions, knowing that the NFL and NBA splits set precedent that the NHL would insist upon, seeing clearly the constant franchise instability and struggle to find new owners, why hire a guy whose history indicated a 100% certainty of work stoppage and go for the nuclear option again?


    This only gets worse. What are they thinking? Hockey has always been number 4 in the US sports pecking order and now they are driving themselves into oblivion. I miss it so much, and I get angrier every day.


    I'd like to see the union walk away from the entire season instead of playing the game and watching the league chip it away piece by piece. The players can find employment overseas and should do so for a year. Teach those greedy owners a lesson.


    Love the article. I have a question for you: the owners seem to have this idea that if they push hard enough the players will just fold. With that said, it seems like the players are standing firm AND winning the PR game with the fans. Do you see a senario where the owners end up "folding" (at least in terms of compromising on the contracts while getting 50%) due to pressure, or do you think that they are content with just staying the course with the nuclear option even though they risk alieniating even the most ardent fans?


    The difference between this lockout and, say, the NFL lockout is that the NFL owners may have had a goal in mind, but they weren't willing to destroy the league just to get their money. As a hockey fan, this is ugly to watch

    Stu Hackel
    Stu Hackel moderator

     @BrianSpiegel Thanks, Brian. As for your question, I'd say yes, it's possible for your scenario to unfold, although it would obviously take a change in the collective thinking of the owners, just as the players folding now would require a change in that group's collective thinking. In either of these scenarios, the pressure would largely be internal, I think: the owners would determine it would be a disastrous business decision to lose the entire season's revenue, or the players deciding they'd take another hit to their salaries and a cutback on individual contracting issues in order to return to play.


    Now, there are reports this weekend that the league is changing its approach to the contract "make whole" provisions and, if that's so and if this and other areas can be agreed upon, it would signal some real bargaining for the first time. We'll have to see the results of bargaining to learn who backed off on what positions and determine who gave in which areas.


    Thanks for the comment and question.