NHL cancels Winter Classic, season in the balance

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Ohio State Hockey / (Photo By Cleveland Indians)

Ohio State Hockey / (Photo By Cleveland Indians)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — The NHL has put one of its signature events on ice.

The Winter Classic, scheduled between Detroit and Toronto for Jan. 1 at Michigan Stadium, became the latest casualty of the league’s lockout.

“The logistical demands for staging events of this magnitude made today’s decision unavoidable,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said Friday. “We simply are out of time. We are extremely disappointed, for our fans and for all those affected, to have to cancel the Winter Classic and Hockeytown Winter Festival events.”

Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall was bummed out, too. He was looking forward to facing the Maple Leafs in a matchup of two Original Six teams in the home of college football’s winningest team.

“It’s obviously very sad,” Kronwall told The Associated Press. “The Winter Classic is one of the highlights of the year, and this is something everyone has been looking to because playing at the Big House would’ve been something very special.”

Don Fehr, the players’ union executive director, called the decision “unnecessary and unfortunate, as was the owners’ implementation of the lockout itself.”

“The fact that the season has not started is a result of a unilateral decision by the owners; the players have always been ready to play while continuing to negotiate in good faith,” he said. “We look forward to the league’s return to the bargaining table, so that the parties can find a way to end the lockout at the earliest possible date, and get the game back on the ice for the fans.”

The league said it would schedule the next Winter Classic at the stadium, which holds more than 100,000 people and had been expected to set a record for attendance at a hockey game. Among other things, the event called for a winter festival about 45 miles away in Detroit and the construction of two outdoor rinks for multiple college and youth teams.

Some 400,000 people were expected in the area over the New Year’s weekend, filling hotel rooms, restaurants and bars.

“We have been holding reservations for a lot of fans that were expecting to come,” said Michael Harman, general manager of the Campus Inn in Ann Arbor. “So far, we have not received very many cancellations, but we do anticipate them.”

The labor dispute, which began Sept. 16, has already forced 326 games to be wiped out from Oct. 11 through Nov. 30, but losing the sixth annual outdoor extravaganza is the biggest blow yet for the league and its players. There haven’t been any labor talks since Oct. 18, when the players’ union countered a league offer with three proposals that were quickly rejected by the NHL.

Daly indicated that cancelling the Winter Classic doesn’t necessarily mean more games in the regular season — or the All-Star game — will be wiped out soon.

“I don’t foresee any further cancellation announcements in the near term,” Daly wrote in an email to The AP.

He said it is “impossible” for him to say whether the Red Wings and Maple Leafs would play on Jan. 1 at Joe Louis Arena in the Motor City — if a labor deal is reached.

The cancellation is a strong reality check that the labor fight has no end in sight. The sides have remained in contact in recent days, but none of those discussions has led to any new negotiations. Daly and players’ association special counsel Steve Fehr have spoken several times over the course of this week and seem to be moving closer to setting up a time to get together.

Daly said that Superstorm Sandy didn’t prevent the sides from returning to negotiations this week.

“No meetings have been scheduled yet, but we have had an ongoing dialogue,” Daly said.

The NHL has already said that it will be impossible to play a full season because of the lockout, and even if the league is able to reschedule some games that were previously called off, it seems unlikely that the Winter Classic can be moved to a new date or location this season. It was the first scheduled for a college stadium — after the previous five were played in NFL or baseball stadiums — and the first to plan other events in a different venue as part of the celebration.

Comerica Park, home to the American League champion Detroit Tigers, was supposed to host the Hockeytown Winter Festival and the NHL Alumni Showdown. Those events are also casualties of the lockout, along with the attempt to break the hockey attendance record of 104,173 set by Michigan and Michigan State’s hockey teams in 2010.

The NHL was to pay a total of $3 million — over multiple installments — to rent the stadium. Calling the game off by Friday cost the league only a $100,000 deposit paid to the University of Michigan.

“Clearly, as long as the lockout was in place, we couldn’t go very far with any of the planning or execution of the event,” Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon told The AP. “We held several meetings to talk about what we wanted to do and to coordinate activities, but we never got to a point where any out-of-pocket money was spent. We’re still going to host the event, it’s just not going to be on the date originally planned, and we’re excited about that.”

When that might happen is anyone’s guess.

In its most recent proposal, the NHL offered the union a 50-50 split of hockey-related revenue, which exceeded $3 billion last season, but that offer was rejected. The players responded with their three offers that went nowhere.

The NHL proposal was contingent on the league playing a full season, which now won’t happen. The league has called that its best offer and has since pulled it back.

“Last week we had a proposal to save a full season on the table. That has since been withdrawn,” Daly told the AP. “That creates a different environment for talks.”

Players earned 57 percent of revenue in the recently expired contract, in which a salary cap was included for the first time. Owners sought to bring that number below 50 percent this time before their most recent offer. The union tried to get talks restarted last week without preconditions, but was turned away after refusing to agree to bargain off the framework of the league’s offer or issue another proposal with the league’s offer serving as a starting point.

There is a major divide between the sides over how to deal with existing player contracts. The union wants to ensure that those are all paid in full without affecting future player contracts. League Commissioner Gary Bettman expressed a willingness to discuss the “make whole” provisions on existing contracts, but only if the economic portions of the league’s offer are accepted first by the union.

This is the third lockout in Bettman’s tenure. The first forced a shortened 1994-95 season, and the second led to the cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season — the only time a major North American professional sports league lost a full season to a labor dispute.

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