NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced last winter that the 2013 NHL Winter… (Paul Sancya / Associated…)
The NHL, still at odds with players over a new collective bargaining agreement, took another step toward oblivion on Friday by announcing it had canceled its showcase Winter Classic outdoor game. This season’s game was to have been played Jan. 1 between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs before a crowd of more than 100,000 at the University of Michigan’s football stadium.
Also canceled were many fan-oriented events scheduled for Dec. 16-Dec. 31, including a downtown Detroit hockey festival at Comerica Park, college games and games involving alumni of both teams. The league said the next Winter Classic and Winter Festival will take place at the University of Michigan stadium and Comerica Park, respectively.
"The cancellation was necessary because, given the absence of a collective bargaining agreement between the NHL Players' Association and the NHL, the league was not in a position to do all that is necessary to adequately stage events of this magnitude," the league said in a statement. It estimated that the game and accompanying events would have drawn 400,000 fans to downtown Detroit.
"The logistical demands for staging events of this magnitude made today's decision unavoidable. We simply are out of time," said NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. "We are extremely disappointed, for our fans and for all those affected."
The Winter Classic is one of the NHL’s prime revenue producers and an opportunity the league has pursued to attract casual fans. Previous Winter Classic games have emphasized the grass roots of the sport and have heavily featured players talking about their childhood experiences skating on ponds and lakes, creating a unique atmosphere and an appeal that has resonated with advertisers and TV audiences.
Although the announcement was expected because the event requires extensive preparation and because the NHL faced a deadline on Saturday to pay the university another $250,000 toward the costs of staging the game, it drove home the league’s determination to accept short-term losses for the supposed long-term gain of a more favorable labor deal.
The league and the players union don’t appear to be far apart and have agreed to split hockey-related revenues 50-50. However, they’ve been unable to resolve their differences over how to reduce players’ share of hockey-related revenues from last season's 57% to 50%. Players favor a gradual phase-in and want assurances they will be paid the full value of their existing contracts; the NHL wants an immediate drop but promises to fully compensate players, on a deferred basis, through a “make whole” clause. Players fear that the deferred payments would count against future earnings and that they would not get the full value of their contracts.
The NHL has canceled games through Nov. 30, a loss of 326 games, or 26.5% of the season. The sides have had informal talks but have not had a full negotiating session for a while and have not scheduled any formal talks.
Donald Fehr, chief executive of the players' union, released this statement:
“The NHL’s decision to cancel the 2013 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic is unnecessary and unfortunate, as was the owners’ implementation of the lockout itself. The fact that the season has not started is a result of a unilateral decision by the owners; the players have always been ready to play while continuing to negotiate in good faith. We look forward to the league's return to the bargaining table, so that the parties can find a way to end the lockout at the earliest possible date, and get the game back on the ice for the fans.”