Back in 2007, when the NHL announced the creation of the Winter Classic, Commissioner Gary Bettman stood in the middle of Ralph Wilson Stadium and said the reasons for staging an outdoor game were clear.
“We’re really doing it because we think it’ll be fun,” Bettman said. “It’s a great tribute to the game and its roots.”
It was indeed fun, with more than 73,000 fans standing in the snow to watch the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins on Jan. 1, 2008. It was such a great tribute to the sport that the NHL made it a New Year’s tradition and turned the game into its marquee event.
This year, though, all the fun has disappeared. The labor fight between the league and the NHL Players’ Association has shut down the game and alienated fans. It’s hardly a time to celebrate hockey’s roots.
So, as expected, the NHL pulled the plug Friday on this year’s Winter Classic.
The Detroit Red Wings were scheduled to host the Toronto Maple Leafs in the biggest Winter Classic yet. The teams were set to play New Year’s Day in Michigan Stadium, the 110,000-seat football coliseum in Ann Arbor. Downtown Detroit had planned two weeks of events leading up to the game, including collegiate, junior- and minor-league contests in the Tigers’ baseball stadium, Comerica Park.
Now, like the preseason and the regular-season schedules for October and November, they’re gone.
“The logistical demands for staging events of this magnitude made today’s decision unavoidable,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said in a statement 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.”
The cancellation came on the day a $250,000 payment to the University of Michigan was due, but bringing clarity to all the parties involved was more important than the money, especially considering that hundreds of millions of dollars have been squandered since the lockout started in September.
Numerous teams and organizations – plus all the fans – have been in a holding pattern while the NHL and its players turn their backs on each other. The Toronto Marlies and Grand Rapids Griffins of the American Hockey League, the University of Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan Technological University and Western Michigan of the NCAA, and the Windsor Spitfires, Saginaw Spirit, London Knights and Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League were all scheduled to play outdoors next month. Their games have been rescheduled to indoor rinks.
The NHL said the next Winter Classic will be held in Michigan and again feature the Red Wings and Maple Leafs. Whether that will be next year will be determined by labor talks. Daly and Steve Fehr, special counsel to the NHLPA, will meet today, according to ESPN.com. TSN reports the owners improved their most recent proposal this week.
“The NHL’s decision to cancel the 2013 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic is unnecessary and unfortunate, as was the owners’ implementation of the lockout itself,” said Donald Fehr, executive director of the NHLPA. “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.”