NEW YORK - As bad as a lockout would be if it dragged into December, there could be a real New Yearís Day hangover for some if the Winter Classic is a casualty.
Up to now, the feel-good outdoor game between Toronto and Detroit in front of 100,000-plus in Ann Arbor, Mich., was thought to be a sacred cow, the nationally televised event the league wouldnít dare put at risk. There is to be a whole hockey festival with alumni and college games going on in Detroit, too. But people on the broadcast side believe the Classic is more like a classic red herring as far as being the drop-dead date for the 2012-13 schedule. If the Big House becomes the Big Empty, thatís tough.
For one, the Maple Leafs and Red Wings have two of the staunchest fan bases in the league and both will survive. They combined to crash the website when basic ticket information was first posted and even though theyíll grumble at a cancellation, they will pack the place and likely set the crowd record in 2014. And as popular as the Classic has become in the U.S., the struggling Leafs arenít going to be as much of a draw as the perennialy strong Wings.
One TV type said the league would be crazy to go three months into a lockout and then take less than their desired deal to save a game that in the end might generate the same broadcast revenue of regular games on a Saturday night.
How many other games the league could afford to lose is up for debate. Thus far, the league has not announced a contingency plan to lop October dates off of the schedule. That will likely begin in earnest if no progress is made in collective bargaining talks after Labour Day. In the past two lockouts, the league had a 48-game schedule that began in late January of 1995 and the playoffs wrapped in late June, while the 2004-05 season was totally scrapped.
With more teams now than in 1995, itís questionable if the league can run such a shortened schedule this time, without running into building availability issues. The NHL is not like the NBA, which compressed itself into a gruelling 66-game season when its lockout was settled in December of 2011.
But there is a feeling the league can save the entire 82-game schedule in this short negotiating window if talks gain traction as early as this weekend. Progress has been made on many secondary issues which can be settled in the final days leading up to Sept. 15.