The NHL will not cancel the Winter Classic on Friday and is not expected to do so before Nov. 15.
But exactly when the league, which has locked out the players, will call off the annual outdoor game is the subject of some conjecture, even among those who have spoken to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly. Some sources say Bettman believes Nov. 15 is the last possible day to make a decision because of the preparations involved for the game, between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings and planned for Jan. 1 at the University of Michigan’s 115,000-seat stadium.
However, Daly declined to comment on any potential deadlines, saying only that the decision will rest more on the preparations involved for the game rather than the stalled labour negotiations. But a league source suggested Nov. 15 may not be the day an announcement is made.
No one from the league or any of the teams involved would comment publicly because of Bettman’s gag order prohibiting management people from speaking about any aspect of the labour negotiations. While Daly has been in touch with NHL Players’ Association special counsel Steve Fehr, no resumption of talks is in sight.
The preparations for this season’s Winter Classic are more elaborate than usual because there are two venues for the event. Michigan’s stadium will play host to the game, while a two-week winter festival is planned for Comerica Park in downtown Detroit, which will play host to two Wings-Leafs alumni games plus college, junior and high-school games. If the Winter Classic is cancelled, the festival will be scrubbed as well.
In addition to the millions of dollars that need to be spent building two outdoor rinks for the games, other venues need to be built as well. The league and its sponsors will also have to commit a lot of money to hotel reservations at some point, which also plays into the decision about the game.
It was expected the NHL would announce Friday, because of its contract with the university, that the game was cancelled. If it cancels by Friday, the league would only lose $100,000 (all currency U.S.) of the $3-million in rent it is to pay U of Michigan. After Friday, that amount rises to $250,000, although the league does have the right to cancel right up to a day before the game.
One source said that given the amount of revenue at stake with the game, the NHL would not have a problem paying $250,000 “because it’s not a large payment given the mathematics of the deal.”
Two other sources said there could be a gentlemen’s agreement between the NHL and the university for an extension without payment so the league could wait at least a week longer before deciding if the game should be scratched. The understanding is that if this season’s game is cancelled the league would simply reschedule it for Michigan one year later.
It is hard to estimate the total cost to the NHL of a cancellation because many sponsors at the game have long-term deals with the league that involve other events. But as far as the ticket sales go, several sources said gate receipts of $10-million would be lost.
Despite the potential loss, all of the NHL management sources said the Winter Classic is not considered to be a carrot in collective bargaining even though the players believe its cancellation hurts the owners more than them. Two sources said the owners cannot agree to a deal with the players they think is bad for them just out of fear of losing the outdoor game.