Gary Bettman seems intent on spoiling the party.
Could the Winter Classic be the next event to go if negotiations don't bring about a solution to the NHL lockout?
Given Bettman's track record, you can't say he is bluffing when he said the time for cancelling that event is rapidly approaching.
After he characterized the NHL Players' Association's Oct. 18 counteroffer as a step backwards (source: CBSSports.com), the atmosphere around the negotiations between the league and the players turned pessimistic again.
The league has made great inroads the past few years with its presentation of outdoor hockey on or around New Year's Day. This year's Winter Classic is scheduled for New Year's Day at the University of Michigan's cavernous Michigan Stadium.
Bettman said the event is in jeopardy. "Under these circumstances and uncertainty, we're not going to commit millions of dollars if we don't think we're playing," Bettman told the Detroit News. "The Winter Classic time frame, in terms of making that decision, is rapidly approaching."
It seemed like negotiations had taken a step forward when Bettman presented the NHL's 50-50 offer to the players Oct. 16. However, when the NHLPA did not just automatically accept the offer, Bettman chose to make his displeasure public and threaten the rest of the season. That includes the Winter Classic.
Bettman has shown that he is not bluffing.
Hockey fans know that Bettman kept the players locked out for the entire 2004-05 season, so those who believe he is just threatening without the intent of following through don't understand his history.
He has carried out his threats before, and he could make good on this one.
However, the Winter Classic is a huge event for the league, and making it a centerpiece in the next round of cancellations is probably not necessary.
Assuming that the two sides don't reach an agreement—or at least make substantial progress—by Oct. 26, Bettman is likely to cancel more games.
A two-week chunk of games from Nov. 2 through Nov. 16 seems likely. Going as far as cancelling the Winter Classic would be premature.
Bettman could do it, and he laid the groundwork for such a decision by underlining the costs involved in putting on the outdoor game.
Still, that cancellation seems more likely later on, perhaps in mid-November. If no agreement is reached by the end of November, it seems certain Bettman would pull the plug on the Winter Classic by then.
It will take reasoned responses by the cooler heads representing the NHL and the NHLPA to prevent that from happening. Those who expect Bettman to suddenly turn reasonable are almost certainly mistaken.
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