September 22, 2012
Winter Classic conundrum for NHL, players
By BRUCE GARRIOCH, QMI Agency
Can the Winter Classic save the season?
With the lockout now shifting into high gear, there is a perception NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will get heat from the owners and NBC executives to save the season so the Winter Classic can be held Jan. 1 at Michigan Stadium.
More than 100,000 fans are expected to pack "The Big House" for the outdoor game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings -- Original Six rivals -- in what promises to be the biggest and best in the short history of the classic.
But league sources insist the NHL's view on the matter is simple: If it doesn't happen, there's always next year and the 115,000 tickets available easily would be snapped up again if the league is forced into giving refunds.
"I don't think (the league) cares," said an NHL executive speaking on the condition of anonymity this week. "They'll just postpone (the game) and hold it the next year. No big deal."
At least two other league executives contacted by QMI Agency shared that view. It may not look like it, but the Winter Classic is being treated by the league's head office as just another game on the schedule in this labour dispute with the players.
Of course, that couldn't be further from the truth. The average ticket price for the New Year's Day game is in the $200 range. That doesn't take into account the money people will spend on concessions and finding a parking spot.
Cancelling it will be costly.
"The impact of losing this game is in the tens of millions of dollars," a league insider said Friday. "The rationale behind this game is that the NHL is put under the national spotlight in the United States, and in Canada as well.
"You have a national viewing audience that has no competition: There's no NBA, the bowl games don't start for three hours. They pull out all the heavyweights for this game and it's well promoted. This sets the standard for the second half of the season. This game is of massive importance."
The NHL lockout will reach the one-week mark Saturday at 11:59 p.m. ET. This is supposed to be a crucial period in negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement, but there have been no talks since the shutdown took effect.
The players sense the Winter Classic and the accompanying HBO 24/7 TV series will be a pressure point to get a deal. Many NHL types believe this is part of union head Donald Fehr's message to players.
"I don't think there is any pressure (for Bettman) to get a deal done (to save the Winter Classic)," Rogers Sportsnet analyst Doug MacLean, a former Columbus Blue Jackets president/general manager, said Friday.
"The governors are totally focused on fixing the (CBA). They're not focused on any of those things, such as NBC and corporate partners. The league has its eye on the big picture and that's where they are headed. They can't worry about one game. That's not what this (fight) is about."
The classic isn't all that's at risk if there's no labour deal. As part of the event, the Hockeytown Winter Festival in Detroit is supposed to include an alumni game between Detroit and Toronto greats at Comerica Park, home of the Tigers.
If there's no new agreement in place, the NHL likely would wipe out the alumni game. Other events involving junior hockey and the AHL would go on but wouldn't draw nearly the same attention.
Not everybody is convinced cancelling the game for the greater good of a new CBA is a good idea.
"This game and everything that goes with it is one of kind," the insider said. "The NHL is going to say 'no' because they don't want pressure in the negotiation, but one can deduct it's pretty important. It is a benchmark on the timetable and, of course, they're not going to admit to that."
The Winter Classic could just be one more victim before this CBA battle is over.