NHL needs to avoid a Classic mistake

NHL needs to avoid a Classic mistake
November 2, 2012, 1:59 pm
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Nobody wants to overstate the importance of any one day in the NHL lockout, but today is crucial when it comes to forecasting hockeys future.

The pessimists (realists?) have been predicting the cancellation of the leagues centerpiece Winter Classic for more than a week, and many believe it will happen today. When it does -- if it does -- it will mark the moment things got truly ugly for both the NHL and the NHLPA.

Today is the deadline for the league to send a 250,000 contracted payment to the University of Michigan, which is hosting the event. If the NHL decides not to write the check and pulls the plug on one of its crown jewels, well, that could spark the kind of doom usually reserved for comic book super villains from Latvia.

The NHL would simply be following through on its long-anticipated move of cancelling the Jan. 1 game between the Red Wings and the Maple Leafs in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In so doing, it would wipe out a glorious day that was not only supposed to break league records for revenue from a single event, but would create a winter festival atmosphere in a beloved hockey town.

It would be also the latest in a series of kidney punches hockey fans have endured over the first 47 days of this labor war. More than 300 regular-season games have been cancelled over the last two months. But the axing of New Years Day festival would mark the first loss of something everybody expected to survive the lockout.

It's cancellation would wipe out the kind of feel-good day the NHL will so badly need whenever it returns.

Think about it: It wasn't until the September 1995 night in Baltimore, when Cal Ripken played in consecutive game number 2,131, that Major League Baseball truly started healing the wounds of the 1994 strike. As NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr -- who was the head of the baseball players' union during the '94 strike, which also wiped out the World Series -- found out when he first began meeting with media from Montreal this summer, there are throngs of Expos fans who have never forgiven MLB for cutting short a magical season at Olympic Stadium, one in which the Expos had the best record in baseball when play stopped.

It's almost 20 years later, and they still remember.

The good people of Michigan -- not to mention hockey fans everywhere -- will have the same kind of long-lasting ill will if their Winter Classic is taken away.

The NHL appears hesitant to continue on with Winter Classic planning given the financial capital that's required, the long-range planning that's needed . . . and the goodwill that has to exist on both sides to make things work on New Years Day. Sources have indicated the NHL feels the bitter feelings and raw emotions left over from the lockout would damage the fairy tale aspect of the Winter Classic even if hockey is being played by January.

While thats understandable, the league should look at it from the other direction. Hockey will need signature events and big moments to win back the disenchanted fans.

The snow globe Winter Classic is the biggest club remaining in commissioner Gary Bettmans bag, and he loses leverage once he uses it.

Perhaps the Jan. 1 game in the Big House in Michigan -- with as many as 120,000 fans from Detroit and nearby Toronto expected to pay top dollar to attend -- is the one cathartic moment that will allow NHL fans to forgive and forget. Thats something the league didnt have when it attempted to make amends with its paying customers after whacking the 2004-05 season.

And remember: Removing all possibility of a Winter Classic also rips the heart out of anybody that loves the game of hockey. Sure, it doesnt mean that the entire 2012-13 season will be cancelled. But if the Winter Classic -- and the profits that go along with it -- become a memory, then the loss of the entire season becomes a very real possibility.

Some, given Bettman's past history, are resigned to the fact that there'll be no hockey this year.

But were not there yet.

Unfortunately, the cancellation of the Winter Classic would be a giant step in a direction the NHL shouldn't want to go.

Those with agendas talk about how the lockout is already doing irreparable damage to the NHL. But thats simply not true at this point.

If the NHL and NHLPA agree to keep the possibility of the Winter Classic alive through Nov. 15 -- probably the latest date in which all the preparations could still be made -- and come to an agreement that would start the season on Dec. 1, fans will forgive the greed and arrogance thats been shown over the last two months. People wont remember the bad times when the Red Wings and Maple Leafs suit up before a record hockey audience, and it will all seem like a fading bad dream once the Stanley Cup playoffs get cranking in April after a shortened season.

But the NHL needs to send forth an olive branch, and that starts with extending the life of the Winter Classic while finding some way to make a capped escrow system work within the parameters of a make whole provision. Hope is something that will keep hockey fans going, even though the NHL and NHLPA have given them little-to-nothing thus far in negotiations.

If the NHL and Gary Bettman cancel the Winter Classic today, they might as well just cancel the rest of the season while they're at it. Because it will destroy the one thing -- the public's goodwill -- that theyll desperately need once the business of hockey resumes, as it inevitably will.

And its already in dangerously short supply these days.