Once the sign of prosperous times in the NHL, the Winter Classic is now an emblem of its failings.
The league wiped its marquee event off the schedule Friday, bringing about another dark moment during the lockout and casting shadows over the future of the 2012-13 season.
Organizers had been expecting a crowd of 115,000 at Michigan Stadium on Jan. 1 to watch the Toronto Maple Leafs play the Detroit Red Wings — an Original Six matchup that commissioner Gary Bettman predicted would vault the Winter Classic to a “record-setting level.”
Instead, it followed the 326 regular-season games through Nov. 30 that have already been cancelled because of the league’s work stoppage.
“The logistical demands for staging events of this magnitude made today’s decision unavoidable,” said deputy commissioner Bill Daly. “We simply are out of time. We are extremely disappointed for our fans and for all those affected.”
The annual Winter Classic has come to occupy a special place on the NHL calendar since first being held in 2008, when Sidney Crosby scored in a shootout to lift Pittsburgh past Buffalo while snow fell on Ralph Wilson Stadium.
It made subsequent stops at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, Boston’s Fenway Park, Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field and Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park — events that helped propel the league to record revenue year after year.
Not only was the NHL hoping to set a world record for attendance at the “Big House” in Ann Arbor, Mich., this season, it was also counting on a large national television audience in both the U.S. and Canada. The Toronto-Detroit game was the only one scheduled for Jan. 1 and anticipation had been building among fans and players alike.
“It’s definitely very disappointing,” Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard told ESPN.com on Friday. “Not only was I looking forward to it but so were all my friends and family. It was going to be a great event not just for us but all the businesses and hotels and fans excited to see us and Toronto play.”
The cancellation will also keep the league from enjoying the spotlight on HBO’s popular “24/7” series, which went behind the scenes with NHL teams in the leadup to the Winter Classic the last two years and was scheduled to do so again.
League executives wrestled with the decision about when to pull the plug on the event and spent Friday phoning sponsors to let them know it was coming. Ultimately, they decided that there wouldn’t be proper time to pull everything together even if a new collective bargaining deal with the NHL Players’ Association was signed soon.
In addition to the Winter Classic itself, a second rink at Comerica Park in Detroit was planned for the Hockeytown Winter Festival, which would feature junior, NCAA, American Hockey League, alumni and youth games over a two-week period. Those have been mothballed as well.
Sounding a familiar tune, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr labelled the NHL’s round of cancellations “unnecessary and unfortunate.”
“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,” said Fehr.
The NHL has pledged to play its next Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium, but didn’t reveal exactly when that would be. The most likely date is Jan. 1, 2014 — a full 14 months away. Fans were given the option to hang on to their tickets for the rescheduled game or turn them in for a refund.
By cancelling the event on Friday, the NHL forfeited a US$100,000 deposit already paid to the University of Michigan. It would have been on the hook for other expenses to the school if it was called off closer to Jan. 1.
For the second time in eight years, a labour dispute is threatening to wipe out an entire NHL season.
The league and NHLPA haven’t held negotiations since Oct. 18, when the union responded to the league’s latest offer by tabling three proposals. None of those gained any traction.
On Friday morning, Daly told The Canadian Press that he expects talks to resume in the “relatively near future,” indicating that the sides were still working through logistics. By early evening, nothing had been scheduled.
The league and its players have been fighting over how to divide the US$3.3-billion in revenue that was generated last season. That number is sure to be much lower even if they end up salvaging part of the 2012-13 schedule.
The Winter Classic is a major money-maker in itself, with sports marketer Brian Cooper estimating that the 2013 event would have brought in $3 million in corporate sponsorships alone. On top of that, the NHL will miss out on a significant amount of lost revenue from ticket and merchandise sales.
“This was a big date,” Cooper said recently.