nhl lockout

NHL makes another PR blunder by blowing up Winter Classic

The Globe and Mail

The Philadelphia Flyers and the Boston Bruins play during the first period of the NHL's Winter Classic at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts January 1, 2010. (ADAM HUNGER/REUTERS)

To put this in cartoonish terms, which is entirely appropriate given the ridiculous notion that a second NHL lockout in seven years is necessary amid record revenue, in cancelling the Winter Classic the league and its owners just made like Wile E. Coyote and set off a bomb in their own faces.

In the wake of the worst public-relations hit in a series of them, the questions now are:

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1. Does this mean the cancellation of the entire season, for an unthinkable second time since the 2004-05 season was lost, is now a real danger?

2. Now that the owners have lost what the players consider one of their prime jewels, will the pressure to make the necessary concessions for a new collective agreement shift to the players?

3. Does the loss of what is the biggest one-day event on the NHL calendar for its U.S. fans, sponsors and the NBC television network speed the loss of affection in this market to a perilous rate?

Like everything else about this labour dispute there is no definitive answer. The players are more optimistic than the owners at this point that bargaining will resume in time, perhaps by early next week, to save at least a partial season. But the owners say they will only come to the table if the players are willing to negotiate directly from their last offer, a 50-50 share of league revenue.

“At some point, I feel discussions are going to take place,” said New York Rangers goaltender Martin Biron, a member of the NHL Players’ Association’s negotiating committee.

The only thing both sides agree on is that cancelling the annual outdoor game, which this season was to pit the rival Detroit Red Wings against the Toronto Maple Leafs in front of what was expected to be a world-record crowd for hockey of 115,000 at the University of Michigan’s Big House, is a black eye for the league. But the owners and managers think it was a necessary hit if it meant avoiding a new labour agreement with the players they could not live with in the long run.

“I don’t care about the PR hit,” said one NHL governor who actually did not want to see the game cancelled. No one on the management side will speak publicly because of a gag order from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

But the governor came to believe the cancellation was necessary if only because the players believed the Winter Classic was worth enough to the owners to force them to an agreement. The minute the owners came to believe the NHLPA saw the game as a bargaining carrot, the governor said, it should have been cancelled.

That governor and one of his peers say they are puzzled by the players’ belief the cancellation hurts the owners’ revenue but not player salaries. The league was expecting net gate receipts of $10-million (all currency U.S.) from the Michigan game and millions more are earned in sponsorship, merchandise and concession revenue.

The second governor noted all of that money goes directly into the hockey-related revenue that is shared with the players. “It’s money that goes toward their salaries,” he said. “If I were a player, I’d say let’s get a deal done.”

With the outdoor game gone, the next critical date may be Nov. 10, which is when the players were to receive their third pay cheque of the season. This actually represents the first full cheque they will miss, since the first cheque of October is usually small because relatively few games are played in the first two weeks and the players received their escrow cheques from last season recently, which more than made up for the second pay period they missed. But Biron says he and his 720 or so colleagues remain committed to holding out for what they see as the major issue, receiving 100 per cent of the contracts they signed before the lockout.

“I think this is different than last time,” he said, referring to the 2004-05 lockout when the NHL broke the union. “Guys are smart enough to have the right people help manage their finances. There will still be a united front.”

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