NHL needs to avoid a Classic mistake

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NHL needs to avoid a Classic mistake

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.

MLB may make rule changes for '18 season

MLB may make rule changes for '18 season

PHOENIX - Major League Baseball intends to push forward with the process that could lead to possible rule changes involving the strike zone, installation of pitch clocks and limits on trips to the pitcher's mound. While baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred expressed hope the ongoing process would lead to an agreement, he said clubs would reserve the right to act unilaterally, consistent with the rule-change provision of the sport's labor contract.

Union head Tony Clark said last weekend he did not foresee players agreeing to proposed changes for 2017. Under baseball's collective bargaining agreement, management can alter playing rules only with agreement from the union - unless it gives one year notice. With the one year of notice, management can make changes on its own.

"Unfortunately it now appears that there really won't be any meaningful change for the 2017 season due to a lack of cooperation from the MLBPA," Manfred said Tuesday during a news conference. "I've tried to be clear that our game is fundamentally sound, that it does not need to be fixed as some people have suggested, and I think last season was the kind of demonstration of the potential of our league to captivate the nation and of the game's unique place in American culture."

Yet, he also added: "I believe it's a mistake to stick our head in the sand and ignore the fact that our game has changed and continues to change."

Manfred said while he prefers an agreement, "I'm also not willing to walk away." He said he will send a letter to the union in the coming days and plans to continue dialogue with Clark and others in hopes of reaching agreement.

Clark met with Cactus League teams last week, five at a time over Thursday, Friday and Saturday, before departing Monday for Florida to visit each Grapefruit League club - and proposed rules changes were a topic.

"I have great respect for the labor relations process, and I have a pretty good track record for getting things done with the MLBPA," Manfred said. "I have to admit, however, that I am disappointed that we could not even get the MLBPA to agree to modest rule changes like limits on trips to the mound that have little effect on the competitive character of the game."

Clark saw talks differently.

"Unless your definition of `cooperation' is blanket approval, I don't agree that we've failed to cooperate with the commissioner's office on these issues," he wrote in an email to The Associated Press. "Two years ago we negotiated pace of play protocols that had an immediate and positive impact. Last year we took a step backward in some ways, and this offseason we've been in regular contact with MLB and with our members to get a better handle on why that happened. I would be surprised if those discussions with MLB don't continue, notwithstanding today's comments about implementation. As I've said, fundamental changes to the game are going to be an uphill battle, but the lines of communication should remain open."

Clark added "my understanding is that MLB wants to continue with the replay changes (2-minute limit) and the no-pitch intentional walks and the pace of game warning/fine adjustments."

Manfred said he didn't want to share specifics of his priorities for alterations.

"There's a variety of changes that can be undertaken," Manfred said. "I'm committed to the idea that we have a set of proposals out there and we continue to discuss those proposals in private."

MLB has studied whether to restore the lower edge of the strike zone from just beneath the kneecap to its pre-1996 level - at the top of the kneecap. Management would like to install 20-second pitch clocks in an attempt to speed the pace of play - they have been used at Triple-A and Double-A for the past two seasons.

Players also have been against limiting mound meetings. The least controversial change appears to be allowing a team to call for an intentional walk without the pitcher having to throw pitches. In addition, MLB likely can alter some video review rules without the union's agreement- such as shortening the time a manager has to call for a review.

"Most of this stuff that they were talking about I don't think it would have been a major adjustment for us," Royals manager Ned Yost said.

Manfred said starting runners on second base in extra innings sounds unlikely to be implemented in the majors. The change will be experimented with during the World Baseball Classic and perhaps at some short-season Class A leagues. Manfred said it was a special-purpose rule "beneficial in developmental leagues."

Manfred also said Tuesday that a renovated Wrigley Field would be a great choice to host an All-Star Game and Las Vegas could be a "viable market for us."

"I don't think that the presence of legalized gambling in Las Vegas should necessarily disqualify that market as a potential major league city," Manfred said.

Bulpett: Ainge 'really protective' of ability to go to free agency this summer

Bulpett: Ainge 'really protective' of ability to go to free agency this summer

Steve Bulpett joins Mike Felger to weigh in on the NBA trade deadline and the lack of moves made by Danny Ainge and the Boston Celtics thus far.