NHL Lockout: Why Gary Bettman's Threat to Cancel the Winter Classic Is a Bluff

Nicholas GossCorrespondent IOctober 10, 2012

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman at the 2009 Winter Classic.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman at the 2009 Winter Classic.Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

The Winter Classic and the 2013 All-Star Game in Columbus are the next two notable events that could be victims of the current NHL lockout, but would league commissioner Gary Bettman really cancel the Winter Classic in order to break the NHLPA's resolve?

The Toronto Star reported last month that Bettman isn't afraid to cancel the event to better the owners' position in the ongoing labor dispute.

A league source told the Star that, barring a settlement, commissioner Gary Bettman plans to cancel it in November — to take away any advantage the players may have at the bargaining table because of the game’s popularity.

“Gary told (the board of governors) he was going to cancel the Winter Classic in November because he didn’t want the players to use the game as leverage,” the source said.

Should the players call Bettman's bluff? After reading some interesting information on the event's success from Jeff Z. Klein of The New York Times, the answer is yes.

Many believe that the owners' resolve will be tested in December, when pressure mounts to return to play ahead of the Winter Classic on Jan. 1.

The five previous Winter Classic games, all carried by NBC, were the five most-watched regular-season hockey games in North America since the 1970s. Including corporate sponsorships and merchandise sales, the game generates a profit in the "substantial seven figures," John Collins, the league's chief operating officer, said last year.

This season's game is especially grand in scale. It is to be played at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor before a crowd of perhaps 115,000, which would be a world record for hockey. It will involve the Detroit Red Wings and, for the first time, a Canadian club - the Toronto Maple Leafs, the N.H.L.'s most valuable and popular team.

Bettman is not going to use the Winter Classic in negotiations when it is so important to the relevance of his sport, especially in a season that could easily lose one or two months because of the work stoppage.

It's also unlikely that Red Wings owner Mike Illitch will back Bettman if he decides to cancel the event before the latest possible deadline. This game will tremendously help Illitch's franchise and Detroit's economy. He is one of the most powerful owners in the NHL, and one that Bettman cannot afford to anger.

According to CBC (video below), having no Winter Classic this year could cost the Detroit economy as much as $60 million in revenues. This would be devastating for Detroit, a city whose love for the Red Wings helps it get through difficult economic times.

However, the Winter Classic isn't the only event that could be in danger soon, the Hockeytown Winter Festival is also at stake.

For those asking, Winter Classic has not been cancelled yet. But if does get cancelled, look the Hockeytown Winter Festival to go away too.

— John Shannon (@JSportsnet) October 4, 2012

The festival is scheduled to include college hockey games, as well as two alumni games between former players from the Red Wings and Leafs.

If the lockout were to last beyond Thanksgiving in late November, the Winter Classic would be the best start date for the 2012-13 season.

Bettman needs the season to start in epic style if the lockout goes into December because he will need some way to promote the game on a national level to regain fan interest.

The Winter Classic is the perfect event to welcome back the league after a frustrating lockout for the fans. Since the game features two large market teams on a day many people are off from work watching on national television, there's no reason to cancel this game unless there aren't any ways to save it.

If the Winter Classic ever does become in real danger of being wiped out from the 2012-13 schedule, expect NBC to become involved, especially after learning about their current ratings troubles.

Financially, the Winter Classic is very crucial to the league, but its importance goes far beyond the revenue. It's a great day for hockey, and the game keeps getting better. Not only is the whole week always well prepared, the actual on-ice product is fantastic.

Last year's game between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers was more exciting than a lot of the games in the 2012 NHL playoffs.

Bettman wants the players to fear that the Winter Classic will be cancelled soon in an attempt to get Donald Fehr and the rest of the NHLPA to make concessions during upcoming labor negotiations. This is a failed strategy because as much as the players like the event, it's only going to affect two teams this year.

For players who aren't on the Red Wings or Leafs, this game might mean very little to them. Since only two teams' rosters will be directly affected by the Winter Classic's future, there's no reason for Bettman to believe that threatening to cancel it will force the entire NHLPA to cave on key issues.

Whether Bettman really intends to cancel the event, or is bluffing, it's poor move on his part, and a surprising one, too, because he is so intelligent.

Removing the Winter Classic from the schedule before the league has to would do a lot of harm to the NHL, and the players should realize that Bettman is too smart to damage his league like this.

If the players were at a poker table with Bettman, and he bet the Winter Classic, the NHLPA would be foolish not to call.


Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He was also the organization's on-site reporter for the 2011 Stanley Cup Final in Boston. Follow him on Twitter.