NHL Winter Classic Cancelled: The 6 Dumbest Decisions in NHL History

Dave UngarCorrespondent IIINovember 6, 2012

NHL Winter Classic Cancelled: The 6 Dumbest Decisions in NHL History

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    When the NHL cancelled the Winter Classic on Friday (ESPN), the integrity of the 2012-2013 NHL season—if there is any season at all—may have been compromised to the point of irrelevance.

    As if the 2012 NHL lockout has not been absurd enough to begin with, the loss of the 2013 Winter Classic now resonates as one of the dumbest moves the NHL has made in years—perhaps ever.

    The 2013 Winter Classic promised to be the one of the biggest events ever for the NHL, a huge boon not just for the NHL but for the state of Michigan, in general and, more specifically, for the city of Detroit.

    The game itself—an Original Six matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings— had all the potential to have the highest attendance of any NHL game ever as 115,000 fans were expected to attend the event.

    But it went deeper than that.

    The 2013 Winter Classic was going to be the first time a Canadian team had played in the game and it was assumed thousands of Maple Leafs' fans were going to make the short trek to the Big House to watch their team play.

    Beyond that, 15 days worth of events were slated to take place at Comerica Park leading up the game itself.

    To say the loss of the 2013 Winter Classic is a financial disaster for many is a gross understatement.

    Thus, the 2012 NHL lockout has now entered the realm of true stupidity, the epitome of idiocy on a very grand scale.

    Is the 2012 lockout the dumbest decision the NHL has ever made? Let's take a look at the all-time most bone-headed decisions and actions made by the NHL over the years and find out.

    Let's start off by looking at a few really terrible decisions that did not quite make the list, but which are all worthy of a dishonorable mention.

Dishonorable Mentions

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    The NHL Draft Lottery

    I am not really sure how either the NHL or NBA came to the conclusion that a draft lottery was the fairest way of going about awarding the No. 1 overall pick in the draft to a team.

    Sure, it arguably has some sort of deterrent effect on teams tanking the season in order to gain the top pick. But honestly, any team that has any integrity at all would not engage in such tactics anyway.

    The NBA Draft Lottery came into being in 1985 after the Houston Rockets were suspected of tanking the season in order to get the top pick. Almost a decade later, the NHL followed suit after the Ottawa Senators were suspected of doing the same thing so they could gain the top pick in the 1993 draft.

    Notably absent from resorting to any sort of lottery system is the NFL, the annual draft of which is one of the most anticipated events of the NFL offseason.

    If you compare the NHL lottery to the NBA lottery though, it makes your head spin and one has to ask the simple question:  Why?

    With the NBA lottery's weighted system, in its current format, the worst team has a 25 percent chance of getting the top pick.

    With the NHL's current weighted system, the worst team still has just over a 48 percent chance of retaining the top pick.

    How exactly a team is deterred from tanking a season when it knows it still has almost a 50-50 chance of getting the No. 1 overall pick is something that makes sense to only the powers that be who run the NHL.

     

    Rule 48

    Rule 48 is a prime example of how sometimes an idea with good intentions, when put into effect, can meet up with pretty crummy results.

    In the summer of 2011, after open ice hits to David Booth and Marc Savard left both players with concussions—not to mention that a persistent concussion was sidelining the face of the NHL, Sidney Crosby, for an indefinite period of time—the NHL modified Rule 48 (NHL.com).

    As modified, Rule 48 now reads as follows:

    A hit resulting in contact with an opponent's head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact is not permitted.

    In theory it sounds good and it makes sense.

    Its actual application, however, has been less than optimal and has led to a lot of confusion.

    Hits to the head are being looked at more as to the offending player's intent as opposed to the actual outcome of the hit.

    Obviously, the problem here is how does one know what another player was intending? Certainly, there are some circumstances where the intent is obvious.

    But for the borderline events, unless the NHL has been utilizing mind-readers, how does one really know what someone's intent was?

    If the real intent is to do away with these devastating sorts of injuries, then wouldn't the implementation of rules like the NFL's aggressive approach to head-shots and defenseless players make more sense?

     

    The Divisional Format

    It was during the 1998-1999 NHL season that the current playoff seeding format was implemented.

    Is it one of the worst decisions ever made by the NHL? No.

    But it is clearly not one of it's better ones either and it is riddled with inconsistency.

    Under the current format, the three divisional winners in each conference get the top three seeds for the playoffs. After the first round of the playoffs, teams could then be re-seeded and this could create more confusion.

    The problem with this is that a weak divisional winner could get a top three seed even if the No. 4 or even No. 5 seed had a better record. On occasion, that divisional winner would get ousted in the first round by a No. 6 seed, who would then go on to play the No. 1 seed and re-seeding would then take place.

    It is very similar to the situation we saw in the NFL two years ago when the 7-9 Seahawks won the NFC West and got to host the Wild Card game against the 11-5 New Orleans Saints. Sports fans everywhere know how that game turned out.

    This past season, we saw the Florida Panthers get the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference and they got to host the No. 6 seeded New Jersey Devils—even though the Devils finished eight points better than the Panthers in the regular season. Not surprisingly, the Devils won in seven games.

    In the 2008 playoffs, we saw something similar when the Washington Capitals claimed the No. 3 seed and took on the No. 6 seeded Philadelphia Flyers, who finished one point better than the Caps. Again, the Flyers prevailed in seven games.

    It is not a huge problem, but even the NHL knows there is an issue there.

    At the beginning of the year, the NHL proposed a change to a four-conference format, with each conference having eight teams (tsn.ca). The top four teams from each conference would qualify for the playoffs and they would then play each other within the conference, with the top seed playing the No. 4 seed and the No. 2 and No. 3 seed playing each other. The ultimate conference champions would then meet in the third round and the winners would then vie for the Stanley Cup.

    It certainly makes sense and is a lot more fair and balanced than the current system which can lead to some very odd scenarios.

6. International All-Star Game Format

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    I know there are many people out there who really liked the concept of the International format the NHL used for the All-Star game from 1998-2003.

    I am definitely not one of them and I know there are a great many hockey fans who agree with me on this.

    For fans who are somewhat new to the sport, some history might be helpful here.

    The 1998 Winter Olympic games marked the first time professional hockey players were permitted to compete in the Olympic games. The NHL, to its credit, embraced the idea. To promote the idea, the NHL made a rather radical change to the format of its All-Star game.

    Instead of the traditional Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference matchup, the format switched to an International style pitting one team, comprised of North Americans, against a team of any players not from North America, called the World All-Stars.

    This is another example of good intentions gone bad.

    Part of the problem is that the format made for some rather odd bed fellows. Players who were teammates in the All-Star game would turn around and be at each others throats just a couple of weeks later.

    The North American team was comprised of players from Canada and the USA. Without question, Canada and the USA have had one of the bigger rivalries in Olympic hockey history over the years. Beyond that though, the North American squad was, invariably, comprised of mostly Canadian players.

    The United States' representation was always rather shallow.

    The problem was even more pronounced on the World squad where you had players from the Czech Republic, Russia, Finland and Sweden all playing together and then trying to rip each others heads off just a couple of weeks later.

    No, there is no real evidence that anyone allowed their national pride to impact their performance—but the whole situation was obviously not the most ideal of circumstances.

    You also had the issue of players from the same NHL team, who would have remained teammates if the current format was in place, having to face each other due to the International format.

    The bigger problem was how the format diluted the talent pool, particularly on defense.

    While there was a plethora of quality forwards for both sides to use, blue liners were a different story. Instead of getting to choose from the best defenders in each conference, the International format of the game impacted the depth each team could put on the ice to try and match up against the great forwards.

    That is not to say the defensemen were bad, far from it.

    But the International format usually resulted in teams being put on the ice that were not as solid as they could have been if the current format of East vs. West had been utilized.

    After all, players like Jaroslav Modry or Dmitri Yushkevich are not exactly recognized by most hockey fans as all-time great defensemen. Yet both were on the World team during the International format era.

    Thankfully, the experiment ended in 2003 and we went back to the usual Eastern vs. Western conference set up.

    It was a novel idea by the NHL—but not one of its brighter decisions.

5. The South Shall Rise Again?

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    One of the more questionable decisions the NHL has made over the years has been the decision to expand to cities and regions where there is barely a snowball's chance in hell of that location actually seeing snow, as opposed to expanding to Canada and returning the game to its roots.

    This is particularly true as to the Eastern conference's Southeast division. Up until this past season, the Southeast division consisted of the Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes, Atlanta Thrashers and Florida Panthers.

    It snows in Washington D.C quite frequently. But the white stuff is awfully hard to come by in Tampa, Miami, Atlanta and Raleigh.

    True enough, the Hurricanes and Lightning have hoisted the Stanley Cup in recent years. But if you look at attendance figures from the 2011-2012 season, only the Caps and Lightning averaged attendance numbers that were in the top half of the league.

    But the Panthers ranked 21st and the Hurricanes 22nd. Without a winning team making a serious playoff run, fans in these southern locations, more often than not, stay away.

    What is worse is that the NHL did not learn from its past mistakes as far as Atlanta was concerned. After the Atlanta Flames flamed out and moved to Calgary, the league felt it could do better the second time around.

    As we all know, things did not work out at all and the Thrashers relocated to hockey-starved Winnipeg this past season. The Jets, meanwhile, had 100 percent capacity at the MTS Centre, the smallest arena in the NHL, this past season.

    The Western Conference is far from immune to this problem. The NHL, over the years, has placed teams in Phoenix, Anaheim, San Jose, Nashville and Dallas.

    The Coyotes, Stars and Ducks ranked in the bottom fifth of the NHL as far as average attendance was concerned last season.

    The Coyotes' financial woes, in particular, have been well documented. Whether the team ends up moving to Quebec remains to be seen, but such a move would certainly see a reversal in attendance figures similar to what we saw in Winnipeg this past season.

    The decision to bring the NHL to southern cities had potential but, in another of Gary Bettman's seemingly never-ending demonstrations of poor judgement, wouldn't it have made more sense to look to Canada for better expansion opportunities?

    Admittedly, the United States has better media outlets and bigger markets and better profit potential. But the key word there is potential.

    There are cities in Canada that would be euphoric if the NHL were to head there and the resulting economic impact would be immense, to say the least.

    Quebec, Hamilton, Saskatoon, Halifax—the list goes on and on.

    When the lockout eventually does end, and if the NHL ever gets into an expansion state of mind, let's hope Gary Bettman does the smart thing and brings hockey back to its roots.

    With Bettman though, San Diego, New Orleans, Atlanta (the third time is the charm?) or even Las Vegas probably have a better chance of getting an NHL franchise than a deserving Canadian location.

4. The Crease Rule

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    I know there are many people in Buffalo who will think I ranked this too low. Many of them may think the "crease rule" is the all time dumbest decision the NHL has ever made.

    I wouldn't say it is the dumbest decision—but it sure ranks up there.

    In a recurring theme here, the NHL had good intentions when they enacted the "crease rule". The idea was to prevent goalies from continuously getting run over by players crashing the net.

    The NHL wanted goalies to be able to do their job without having to compete not just with the puck flying at them, but with forwards and defensemen slamming into them at the same time.

    So Rule 78 was enacted—and it just did not work like it should. The part that caused so many problems was Rule 78-B which read as follows:

    Unless the puck is in the goal crease area, a player of the attacking side may not enter nor stand in the goal crease. If a player has entered the crease prior to the puck and subsequently the puck should enter the net while such conditions prevail, the apparent goal shall not be allowed.

    With the rule enacted, goals were getting disallowed at an alarming rate. More than 100 were waived off in the 1998-1999 season. Even more were reviewed and re-reviewed to see if a technical violation had taken place.

    The whole thing was quite inconsistent. The NHL was strictly enforcing the rule, but you would still see goals being allowed in one game that looked almost identical to goals being disallowed in other games.

    Everything reached its apex, though, in Game 6 of the 1999 Stanley Cup finals. Leading the series 3-2, the Dallas Stars looked to clinch their first ever Stanley Cup on the home ice of the Buffalo Sabres.

    The game would go into a third overtime. It was there that Brett Hull scored one of the most controversial goals in NHL history.

    Anyone who has seen the goal (and if you have not then please watch the video) knows when Hull scored the Cup-winning goal, his left skate was clearly in the crease before he fired his winning shot.

    No Goal. That was what the Sabres fans claimed—something they still claim to this day.

    The NHL explained that Hull actually kicked the puck to a better shooting position with his left skate, which was outside the crease at the moment, and he therefore always maintained possession of the puck even though his left skate entered the crease before he fired the winning shot.

    There is still no absolutely correct answer and the debate on this issue has raged for over a decade.

    That summer, the NHL modified the rule to make it more interference-based. Players can be in the crease before the puck—they just can't interfere with the goalie before the puck gets there. This version of the rule is pretty much what we have today.

    But the "crease rule", as it formerly existed, was an utter disaster that led to one of the most debated moments in NHL history.

3. The Hiring of Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr

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    If you wanted to truly learn the fine art of how to effectively manage a labor dispute then the current leadership of the NHL and NHLPA are fine examples of what not to do.

    The 2012 NHL lockout is rolling down the tracks to being an even bigger disaster than the 2004-2005 lockout. Who do we have to thank for this hockey cataclysm?

    Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr. The hiring of these two men is collectively one of the dumbest decisions made by the NHL and the NHLPA.

    After an entire season was lost to the 2004-2005 lockout, one would have thought both sides might have wanted to take a different approach if and when the next CBA needed to be addressed.

    The NHLPA, however, just has no identity when it comes to its leadership and, quite frankly, they really don't know what sort of style they want for their leader.

    Bob Goodenow certainly was not the answer. Yes, he helped the players in the 1992 strike just before the playoffs began. But his role in the 1994-1995 lockout—that ended with a shortened 48 game season—and the 2004-2005 lockout—where an entire season was lost—can only be viewed with negative emotions.

    Ted Saskin came on, seemed to be too soft and was fired two years later.

    Paul Kelley lasted less than two years.

    So after all this, the NHLPA turned to Donald Fehr. Now think about the logic of this for a moment.

    You are the only professional sports league to ever lose an entire season to a labor dispute and who do you hire as your new executive director at a time when a new CBA is going to have to be negotiated?

    Only a guy whose resume included being the head of the MLBPA during a strike in which the World Series was inexcusably lost.

    Is it any wonder the 2012 NHL season might be lost too?

    Not at all, especially when you consider the other terrible decision involved here.

    In February 1993, Gary Bettman became the commissioner of the NHL. Things have not been the same since.

    Whereas this article focuses on several dumb decisions, Bettman's tenure has been a collection of them. He has been a part of every other bad decision mentioned in this article.

    On the labor front, how can you give anyone who has led the sport into three lockouts—one of which resulted in the only time a major sports league lost an entire season to a labor dispute—anything but a failing grade. And that is being kind.

    It is all the more mind-numbing when you consider one of the reasons Bettman was made commissioner was to bring an end to the labor stoppages in the NHL.

    But it is not just the labor stoppages that make Bettman such a disaster as commissioner.

    His southern expansion plans, as mentioned earlier, are another issue. His continued reluctance to bring the NHL to Canadian markets that would rabidly support the NHL is another.

    To be fair though, the NHL has grown considerably under Bettman's leadership and hockey revenue has unquestionably increased. After all, that is what the 2012 lockout is all about.

    The southern expansion has not been all bad either as the Stanley Cup has made its rounds in Raleigh, Tampa and Anaheim in recent years.

    But the labor stoppages, especially these last two, show that Bettman is a commissioner who has no concept of what really matters—the game itself. The integrity of hockey is what matters most, not maximizing one's profit from the game itself.

    Gary Bettman has shown time and again that he just does not get this. Everything he builds up he gradually destroys. It is an endless cycle causing irreparable harm to the NHL.

    The combined hiring of Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr were horribly dumb decisions—decisions from which the NHL might never recover.

2. The 2012 Lockout

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    With the Winter Classic being cancelled, the 2012 lockout has now climbed the ladder of stupidity to almost the top rung.

    If the season is ultimately lost, it will most definitely get there.

    The 2012 lockout ranks so high on the dumb decisions the NHL has made because of what the game has already lost from it and what it might lose moving forward.

    After the 2004-2005 lockout, the NHL had rebounded more effectively than many of us could have dreamed.

    There were legitimate superstars playing the game at an incredibly high level.Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, and the Sedin twins, just to name a few, created a new level of excitement.

    The Winter Classic was born and became more popular than anyone could have imagined. Up until the 2012 lockout, it was well on the way to becoming a New Year's Day tradition like the Rose Bowl or other college bowl games.

    Hockey-related revenue had grown by $3.3 billion since the last lockout. There was so much positive momentum being built that the thought of allowing another stoppage to derail all that momentum just seemed absurd.

    As this article has demonstrated though, the NHL likes to deal in the absurd.

    What makes the 2012 lockout such a dumb decision by the NHL, NHLPA and pretty much all involved is that with so much on the line, the sides could not effectively resolve a dispute that was not nearly as complicated as the one before it.

    The key issues were really how best to split up that $3.3 billion in hockey related revenue and how to do this and honor the players' existing contracts.

    And neither side can figure out how to do this. Even when they more or less agree on a 50-50 split in revenue, they just can't see the forest for the trees.

    With the Winter Classic hanging in the balance, the two sides could not even agree to meet and try and save the marquee event.

    Now we have the NHL losing roughly $720 million in revenue so far, and we have lost the Winter Classic, a game that was probably going to set an all-time attendance record.

    Sad is one way to describe the situation.

    Completely dumb and idiotic is another.

    As ESPN reported earlier on Monday, the two sides have agreed to meet and have actually been talking all weekend. People are very cautiously optimistic. One would like to see these people come to their senses and salvage some sort of season.

    That would at least dull the sting of this completely needless 2012 lockout.

    But the stinger will still remain lodged under the skin of hockey fans for many years to come.

1. The 2004-2005 Lockout

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    As dumb as the current lockout is, it still must be placed a notch below the disaster that was the 2004-2005 lockout—at least for the time being.

    When you are the only major sports league to lose an entire season to a work stoppage—well that is about as dumb as it gets.

    It does not matter that the 2004-2005 lockout dealt with more complicated issues than the current one. When you lose an entire season, you have failed. Plain, simple...end of story.

    The 2004-2005 lockout was filled with words and phrases that could not be defined, not even by those who were using them.

    The NHL used the phrase "cost certainty" as though it was something any sports fan could understand. None of us still completely understands what they were talking about.

    The NHLPA put its own definition on the phrase—salary cap.

    The NHLPA was dead set against any sort of salary cap, so much so that they were willing to sacrifice the season to make a point.

    Now, sure, revenues were not what they are now, and there was no Winter Classic to motivate anyone. But still, the two sides negotiated like complete buffoons and, in the end, it was the fans who paid the most.

    The two sides did not even try and negotiate until December of 2004 and by then, time was running out quickly.

    With the clock ticking loudly, the NHLPA ultimately agreed to a salary cap so long as it was not linked to hockey related revenue. The NHL rejected this.

    Right up until the 11th hour, the two sides inched closer to each other. At the very end, they were quite close with the NHL offering up a deal with a $42.5 million salary cap and the NHLPA countering with a $49 million cap.

    With so much on the line, and the two sides separated by just $6.5 million, one would have thought the two sides could maybe do something smart, like split the difference and agree on a salary cap number of around $45.75 million.

    But as we know, they could not and the 2004-2005 season was lost.

    When things were finally resolved, the depth of each sides stupidity was fully resolved. Oh, the owners got their salary cap but because it was tied to revenues, it ended up being much higher than the owners could have expected.

    The salary cap for last year was $64.3 million. For those keeping score, that is quite a bit more than the $49 million the NHLPA had offered

    The ripple effect of this bad deal the owners made for themselves has, of course, led to the current stalemate.

    Hockey fans everywhere are hoping beyond hope that the two sides will be able to be smarter this time around and not trash an entire season.

    All either side has to do is study the 2004-2005 lockout more closely to gain a better understanding of how it really is true to be careful what you wish for.

    Hopefully, then, the NHL can avoid making an even dumber series of decisions than they made eight years ago.