Will the next announcement from Gary Bettman be the cancellation of the Winter Classic?
That light many of us saw at the end of the NHL lockout tunnel a couple of weeks ago?
It now looks like it was actually the train coming in the other direction. A season threatening bullet-train whose sole purpose it is to smash the hopes and dreams of hockey fans the world over.
In a move that surprised pretty much nobody, the NHL cancelled all games through November on Friday (ESPN).
The hopes for an 82-game season have now been completely dashed.
What is worse is that one gets the feeling that the only people who really care are the fans.
The two sides are barely talking. Never mind that though—the two sides can't even reach a simple agreement to meet again and try and negotiate some sort of resolution to this situation.
As bad as things look, it is likely to get much worse very soon. The reason for that is that the Winter Classic, the NHL's marquee event since 2008, is teetering on the brink of being canceled.
In fact, as ESPN reported earlier today, there are rumors circulating that the Winter Classic will be cancelled by Thursday.
It is somewhat ironic that the Winter Classic would be next on the chopping block. Since its debut in 2008, the Winter Classic has, arguably, been one of the biggest reasons for the increase in hockey related revenue since the last lockout.
The first event in 2008, at Ralph Wilson stadium in Orchard Park, New York, between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres, set an NHL attendance record of 71,217 fans.
In 2009, the second Winter Classic at Wrigley Field between the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks had the highest television ratings in the United States since1976.
The 2011 Winter Classic at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins gave birth to the very popular HBO 24/7 documentary that covered the behind the scenes stories revolving around both teams leading up to the game.
The 2013 Winter Classic is scheduled to take place at Michigan Stadium—aka The Big House—on New Year's Day. It is supposed to pit the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Detroit Red Wings, the first time a Canadian team has played in the Winter Classic.
There is a reasonable chance that if the game is played, it could set an all-time attendance record for any hockey game, seeing as how the current record of 104,073 was set in that very same stadium, a 2010 game between the Michigan Wolverines and Michigan State Spartans.
I say it is ironic that the Winter Classic might be canceled next because, as noted above, it has been such a huge revenue producer for the NHL—and that increase in revenue is the main point of division between the NHL and NHLPA.
But, barring something really unexpected happening, the NHL will cut the head off of it's cash cow and I predict you will see this announcement come by Friday, November 2, 2012, at the absolute latest.
Here are three reasons why.
Back on October 16, the NHL made an offer to the NHLPA to end the lockout (The Detroit News). When news of the offer broke, it sure sounded great.
A 50-50 split of all hockey related revenue? A full 82-game season? And the players would get full value for their existing deals? The players would have to accept that and end the lockout, right?
Of course not. The NHLPA made three counteroffers, all of which the owners apparently rejected within 10 minutes (ESPN).
The NHLPA claimed that one of the offers they made offered an immediate 50-50 split in hockey related revenue if the owners agreed to honor all existing contracts.
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly disputed this characterization of the counteroffer, claiming that the offer never comes close to a 50-50 split even during the five years it was supposedly set to cover (NBC Sports).
So the players say the deal was for an immediate agreement to split revenue 50-50 while the owners claim that never happens at any time during a five year period.
I would say someone is lying. But that is not even the biggest problem or the biggest example of why the owners just don't care.
After everything fell apart with the players' multiple offers, the NHLPA wanted to try and meet with the NHL to try and salvage the 82-game season. The NHL refused to meet with them (Washington Times).
Gary Bettman's quote the other day, as he was helping to announce the Islanders' move to Brooklyn, is particularly telling:
The union has chosen not to engage on our proposal or to make a new proposal of their own. So unfortunately it looks like the 82-game season is not going to be a reality, although the clock has a little bit of time to run. And things seem to be not progressing as we would like, and we're disappointed.
Wait a second. Did I miss something? Didn't the union act on their proposal by making three different counteroffers? Couldn't any or all of them be considered new proposals?
More importantly, if there really is such confusion and possible misunderstanding, and if the goal was truly to save an 82-game season, then why not at least meet with the NHLPA to see if these differences could be worked out?
You have to ask yourself the very real question: Were the owners being serious when they made the offer or was it really just a ploy to sway public opinion in their favor?
It sure seems like the latter. And here is where the Winter Classic might be as good as dead.
In the ESPN article announcing the cancellation of all games in November, Bill Daly estimated that the loss of hockey-related revenue that would result from the loss of all games through November would be approximately $720 million.
No one other than the NHL accountants know exactly how much revenue the Winter Classic actually generates. But, as reported by the New York Times when the lockout began, the NHL's chief operating officer, John Collins, indicated that the Winter Classic generates profits in the “substantial seven figures."
With a possible crowd of 115,000 expected to attend this year's game, revenue and profits of at least seven figures, and then some, can be expected.
But it won't matter. If the NHL does not care enough about losing revenue in the substantial nine figure range, then will they really care that much if they lose a measly seven figure payday, no matter how prestigious the event?
The NHL's rather cavalier "take it or leave it" attitude last week, in the face of a $720 million loss in revenue, makes it extremely likely that they will not care if they lose an additional, for the sake of argument, $25 million in revenue by sacrificing the Winter Classic.
Yes, losing the Winter Classic will be a public relations disaster for the NHL. But does anyone think they really care any longer?
The owners care about one thing and one thing only—the bottom line over the long haul. If sacrifices have to be made in the short term—even if that sacrifice is the best thing they have done since the last lockout—so be it.
After signing huge contracts this offseason, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter have come out and cried foul at the owners' stance in the lockout
As polarized as the two sides already are, one gets the feeling that it would take a minor miracle at this point to save the Winter Classic. For that matter, saving the season at all is going to be very difficult.
When the owners made their 50-50 offer back on October 16, and the players then balked at it, many people, including me, were not happy with the NHLPA. What was so bad about a 50-50 split in hockey-related revenue? What was the big deal with getting the owners to commit to honoring all existing contracts?
Then I started reading more articles and commentary on the subject and the players' concerns not only seemed valid, they made more sense than anything the owners have been talking about lately.
You can find some great examples of this by looking at comments made from the two biggest prizes of the past free-agency period, Ryan Suter and Zach Parise.
Back in July, the Minnesota Wild and owner, Craig Leipold, signed Suter and Parise to matching 13-year, $98 million contracts (ESPN). It was a banner day for the Wild, a potentially franchise changing moment.
But was it all a lie? Did Leipold actually sign both men to amazing, and potentially outlandish, contracts because he know he would never have to honor them?
If you listen to Suter and Parise, it will make you wonder.
In a recent interview with ESPN The Magazine, Suter was asked if he now had doubts as to whether his contract had been negotiated in good faith:
From what's going on right now? Yes. Definitely. I haven't done any interviews. I haven't said anything, but yeah, it's disappointing that the owners, they sign all these guys and some guys were signed within the last week before the CBA was up. Now, they're trying to go back on their word. It's frustrating, disappointing. It doesn't seem like that's the way you operate a relationship or business.
It is a sentiment echoed by Parise. In an interview that Parise gave to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune (via SI.com), just after the owners took all of 10 minutes to reject the NHLPA's three counteroffers, Parise openly questioned whether the owners really wanted to negotiate—or whether this was the plan all along:
Something is not right there. It’s confusing. All these owners, maybe this was their plan the whole time, to sign all these guys to these big contracts knowing full well they’re not going to pay the value of them. To me, that doesn’t sound like good-faith negotiating, yet they keep preaching it.
And Parise and Suter both had $10 million signing bonuses that were protected from the lockout. Several players who signed deals that are affected by the lockout were not so lucky.
To be fair, and as reported by ESPN today, Suter softened his stance in an interview he gave to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune on Sunday. In that interview, Suter clarifies that he really does not believe Leipold was trying to pull a fast one on him or Parise. But the frustration Suter has with the process is still present.
Whether the players were actually tricked or not, many of them feel they were and are convinced that the owners do not want to negotiate with them—at least not in good faith.
With time to save the Winter Classic running out quickly, the two sides would have to trust each other in order to get a deal done. The players flat out do not trust the owners and, from what I have seen, they have some valid reasons for this.
Without trust, there is no way a deal gets done and there is no way the Winter Classic can be saved.
As if this massive rift between the owners and players was not enough to suck the hope out of any hockey fan for any sort of resolution, another major factor going against any hope of saving the Winter Classic is that time is just not on the NHL or NHLPA's side.
As reported by ESPN the other day, Friday, November 2, 2012, is the last day the NHL can cancel the Winter Classic without having to reimburse the University of Michigan for expenses that could run into the millions of dollars.
I know that earlier I painted the picture of the owners being a group of free-wheeling, irresponsible individuals who don't care how many millions they will lose if it satisfies their long term agenda.
Nevertheless, the owners are still businessmen, first and foremost. If the Winter Classic is canceled by Friday, the NHL will forfeit $100,000 of the $3 million rental fee for the Big House in Ann Arbor.
Losing $100,000, or losing $3 million, and then some? The choice for the owners will be an easy one.
That is why there is talk now of the Winter Classic being canceled on Thursday. The owners probably want to give themselves a bit of a cushion.
So, realistically, the NHL and NHLPA have all of four days to do what they could not do in the nine days between the NHL's 50-50 offer and the scrubbing of the entire month of November last Friday—make a deal, save the season and salvage the Winter Classic.
Is there any reason to feel optimistic? At this point, I don't think so. If you read the article on ESPN from today about the probability of the Winter Classic being canceled by Thursday, all you read is the same old rhetoric.
The NHL continues to claim that the NHLPA refused to even discuss the 50-50 proposal which, as has been demonstrated earlier, is a curious assertion to say the very least.
The NHLPA continues to insist that the NHL refuses to meet with them.
The truth? As is often the case, it is probably somewhere in the middle.
Add in a hurricane that will likely make it very difficult to meet even if the sides suddenly come to their senses and time is most definitely working against any hope of saving the Winter Classic.
With all this acrimony, it is a perfect storm for a disaster we have not seen in eight years.
Can a season of some length be saved even if the Winter Classic is lost? Sure. Anything is possible.
But if the most popular event on the NHL calendar is lost—a proven money maker for all involved—the chances of seeing some sort of 2012-2013 season become very bleak indeed.