Winter Classic Shutdown: Why It Will Hurt the NHL

People who wouldn’t spend five minutes watching hockey the rest of the year tune in to the Winter Classic; it is the greatest advertisement for ice hockey extant

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Scott Levy / NHLI via Getty Images

Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers celebrates after the Rangers defeated the Philadelphia Flyers during the 2012 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia on Jan. 2, 2012

The National Hockey League, on its way to setting a new standard for labor-management incompetence, just canceled its highest-profile game: the 2013 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, which this year was scheduled to be played at the University of Michigan’s stadium, known as The Big House. So instead of more than 100,000 people watching the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs duke it out in the outdoors on Jan. 1, the NHL owners are giving up the league’s highest-profile game. Don Fehr, the NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) executive director called the cancellation “unnecessary and unfortunate, as was the owners’ implementation of the lockout itself.” Let’s add: vituperative and self-defeating, not to mention stupid.

People who wouldn’t spend five minutes watching hockey the rest of the year tune in to the Winter Classic; it is the greatest advertisement for ice hockey extant. Even if you’ve never laced up skates you can imagine what fun it is to be outside on a crisp winter’s day knocking the puck around. But the NHL’s owners seem to prefer burning the furniture to keep warm this season rather than make an agreement with the lumberjacks. The cancellation did light a fire under some of the negotiators, as the players’ union special counsel Steve Fehr met with the NHL’s deputy commissioner Bill Daly to try to get the talks moving again.

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Following the path created by the NFL, where the owners now get 53% of revenue, the NHL owners have been relentlessly trying to increase their share of the league’s total revenue. The players were getting about 57% of revenue. The owners demanded 54%, which is eminently fair if you believe people go to ice-hockey games to watch owners. You could see why a lockout ensued. On Oct. 18 the players agreed to a 50-50 split — a pay cut, in other words — and a couple of ways to get there. It took NHL commissioner Gary Bettman minutes to reject them, breathlessly improving his position as the most destructive commissioner in sports. He presided over the loss of the 2004–05 season — albeit with some mutually destructive help from the players’ union.

The sticking point to splitting the pie, according to the Globe and Mail, is that the players wanted their existing contracts to be honored, contracts that were based on the prior collective-bargaining agreement. The owners balked, in that they suggested that those contracts could be honored by lowering players’ share of revenue in latter years of the new CBA. In other words, they’d take money from the players and then pay them with it. Incredibly, this generous offer was iced by the players. Nor are some owners apparently happy with some of Bettman’s machinations.

If the league thought the union would fold in the face of losing hockey’s biggest day, it miscalculated. This time, the NHLPA has rational leadership in the form of the Fehrs, and many of its players are earning paychecks in Europe. Bettman crushed the union seven years ago. This time he’s crushing the NHL.

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