Forget this business about the league’s deadline to scoop up a refund or any other financial aspect tied to Friday’s announcement that the Winter Classic is canceled for this season.
Remove your labor-tainted glasses -- which is hard to do these days -- and view this controversial decision with the big picture scope that it needs.
No one wants the fruit from a poisonous tree.
Regardless of whether there’s an NHL season, whether there’s 70 or 60 or 50 games, the 2012-13 season has been poisoned by a labor impasse.
Players are already grumbling -- and I don’t blame them -- that they won’t bend over backward for league events or appearances once hockey resumes. The bad blood that’s brewing between owners and players is far from done boiling over.
Which is why the NHL, and certainly the Detroit Red Wings, don’t want to associate the league’s No. 1 regular-season event with what’s transpiring in the boardroom. The Winter Classic is supposed to represent everything that is good in hockey, the sport back to its roots, celebrated every Jan. 1 in a way that even the most cynical media observers can’t snicker at.
The NHL and the Red Wings don’t want to host a tainted Winter Classic. Nor do the Wings want to host a scaled-down version of it.
Which is why, even though the league would still have time to build up the infrastructure needed for the Jan. 1 game if there’s a collective bargaining agreement in place by Nov. 30, the Wings don’t want to be part of slapping together a half-sized version of the two-week festival it originally had in mind.
This is way more than just the actual game in Ann Arbor, Mich., between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Red Wings.
It’s also about a celebration of the game in downtown Detroit with a second outdoor ice sheet at Comerica Park hosting an Ontario Hockey League doubleheader, an AHL game, two Leafs-Wings alumni games and other youth hockey games. It’s about more than a quarter-million fans turning through the turnstiles in both stadiums among all the events the league and Wings had planned.
It’s about the legacy that Wings owner Mike Ilitch wanted to leave behind with this event. The Wings under his helm have been the model franchise in the NHL for two-plus decades. They had plans to raise the bar on an already through-the-roof event.
It was going to be the best Winter Classic ever.
Ilitch and the Wings want it done right, not hurriedly cobbled together a month from now when perhaps there’s a new CBA with zero opportunity to have promoted it since Sept. 15 when the lockout sucked the life out of the event.
While the Wings may never admit it publicly, Friday’s cancellation was likely a moment of relief. If the NHL is back next season in full form, its labor troubles behind it, there will be a game at the Big House between the Leafs and Red Wings, plus the kind of festival of events at Comerica that the Wings wanted all along.
We’re all just going to have to wait one year longer for it.
I’m not saying the league should escape blame for this, but I’d suggest where the blame should really lie is in the fact that this lockout is still happening. This is a CBA that, when all is said and done, will likely have most of the elements that many of us predicted months ago could bridge the gap between both sides.
If I’m a fan today, I’m angry that the league and NHLPA haven’t been able to resolve their differences in labor talks. It’s an absolute disgrace that the lockout had to last into November, never mind the possibility it may go even longer than that.
It should not have been that hard to figure out how to divvy up the revenue pie. And for that, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr deserve all the criticism they’re getting from fans.
But when it comes to Friday’s cancellation of the Winter Classic, it was the right move, and the only move.
This season is going to be a sham either way. Let’s not denigrate the Winter Classic with it.