Daily Grind

Cancellation of Classic would have year-long ripple effect

Special to The Globe and Mail

Members of the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Rangers follow the flying puck during the first period in the NHL Winter Classic hockey game in Philadelphia, January 2, 2012. With no end in sight to the lockout, the showcase event may be cancelled, which could kill the NHL’s U.S. momentum. (GARY HERSHORN/REUTERS)

Bruce Dowbiggin posts his perspective on the world of sports each morning.

According to the nursery rhyme, Friday’s child is loving and giving. The giving part is appropriate, because hockey’s child will likely be giving out bad news today. The NHL is cancelling its 2013 Winter Classic game at the University of Michigan and the four-part HBO TV series 24/7 for this season due to its latest labour impasse with players. 

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With expensive deposits due to U of M and commitments to myriad broadcasters and contractors, the league decided against the chances of the Classic being played on New Year’s Day 2013. HBO, too, wanted some assurance it could continue what has become the most significant U.S. TV innovation in decades. 

The NHL partners will get their answer today from commissioner Gary Bettman: “Oops, my bad.”

Hockey people can't just  shrug and talk confidently about reviving the format for 2013-’14 as if this were a bullet-proof property. January 1, 2014, will mark the start of the new NCAA college football playoff format. The four-team BCS format-- plus the usual New Year’s Day Bowl games-- will squeeze any NHL product off the front pages of U.S. newspapers on TV. 

NBC will be hard-pressed to maintain public interest in the face of this new competitor for eyeballs and streams. Regaining the momentum after a hiatus will be the proverbial putting toothpaste back in the tube. Good luck with that. 

This is failure on so many levels that it boggles the mind. Understand that, for the niche league that is the NHL in the U.S., the initiatives of the Winter Classic and HBO series finally allowed them to hold their heads high within the business or as they walked past other league headquarters in Manhattan. “Look at us, we did something right for a change!”

Poof, it’s gone. Yes, the NBA and NFL went through equally acrimonious lockouts in the past two years, but they started this race for public attention so far ahead of the NHL in the U.S. they could afford a stumble. The NFL could probably sleep for a decade and still be a mile ahead of the NHL. But Gary Bettman's league had no such margin for error in an indifferent American marketplace. It now must tell the corporate and broadcast industries that it can’t reliably deliver either its stars or its premium events. (Amusing how, in these negotiations, it’s the NHL betting against its future prosperity while the players’s side predicts untold riches for the league in the future. How’s that work?) 

Did the NHL think it would ever come to this? We don’t know, because no one has a spare million dollars kicking around their pocket to pay Bettman’s stock fine for loose lips on the management side. The players, too, must be double clutching at the realization that the league will once again burn down the village to save the inhabitants inside. Whatever bets they made are closed out.

The public, meanwhile, is disinterested in the bun fight over billions. Social media mocks both sides every day. Television viewers are sampling life outside the hockey bubble. (It’s the perfect time to catch up on all seasons of Breaking Bad or Boardwalk Empire). Distressed fans of the U.S. northeast are consumed by the tragedy of Sandy, not Gary.

We still believe there will be hockey this year when the two sides bore of bleeding each other white. Gary Bettman will give out a Stanley Cup to some team captain. But, to paraphrase Ernest Thayer, “Somewhere men are laughing/somewhere people shout/ but there is no joy in Hockeyville/ the NHL has struck out

Raptors Response

We now know that if a tree falls in the middle of the hockey forest, fans will watch basketball instead. An average 346,000 viewers tuned in Wednesday to TSN for the Toronto Raptors’ losing home debut against Indiana. It was the most-watched Raptors game on Canadian TV since the 2009-10 season. Will be interesting to see how much of that audience the Raptors hold if they lose regularly or, heaven forbid, the hockey guys return to their senses.

The Crash Soars

We mentioned TSN’s Engraved On A Nation film The Crash two weeks ago. It follows the journey of Calgary Stampeder offensive tackle Edwin Harrison as he investigating the death of his grandfather Calvin Jones in a plane crash in December of 1956.

Jones, a rookie with Winnipeg, was returning home from the all-star game in Vancouver when his plane crashed in the Rockies, killing him, four other CFL all-stars and 57 others. Making it more tragic, Jones missed a morning flight home that carried his teammates, including legendary player/coach Bud Grant.

Had a chance to view Paul Cowan’s film, which is showing Friday at 8 p.m. ET on TSN. We can report that it is on a par with ESPN’s excellent 30 for 30 series. Harrison is the stoic narrator as his journey takes him from a reunion with the long-lost side of his father’s family in Steubenville, Ohio, to the crash site on the steep precipice of the mountain near Chilliwack, B.C., that claimed his grandfather’s life. (The site is so remote the bodies were never recovered.)

This might be our favourite in the fine Engraved On A Nation series thus far. As the CFL works to remain relevant in a very competitive sports markets, making the bond between the game and its culture is crucial. Hopefully the next CFL broadcast contact will bring more of the same supporting programming about the league’s place in Canada.

dowbboy@shaw.ca / @dowbboy

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