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Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Updated: November 1, 10:53 AM ET
Players, owners waste good thing

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

As I read through another self-righteously indignant news release from NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, it struck me that the NHL's players and the equally self-righteous and indignant owners truly exist in a kind of bubble.

Now, it might be comfy and warm in there, but it's about time for a little reality to intrude.

On Thursday, or possibly Friday, the NHL will cancel the Winter Classic set for Jan. 1 in Ann Arbor, Mich., and all of the attendant events that would have surrounded the signature event of the NHL's regular season, multiple sources have told ESPN.com.

Unlike the games through Nov. 30 -- some 26.5 percent of the 2012-13 regular season -- that were previously canned by the NHL, this one can't get un-canned.

When the pin goes into the Winter Classic balloon, multiple sources confirmed, the air doesn't get put back in given the myriad of contracts and partners involved in the entire process, including the University of Michigan, the city of Detroit, the American Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League, major sponsors such as Bridgestone and so on.

Barring a miracle arrival of meaningful discussion this week, the Winter Classic will be gone. Gone. Pffft.

The players are busy playing all over the world and attacking commissioner Gary Bettman on Twitter, as are the owners with trying to set up secret chats with the players and spending all of 10 minutes going over the players' latest proposals. So maybe it has escaped both sides that outside their tidy little bubble the give-a-hoot factor about not just the labor talks, but the game itself, is rapidly diminishing.

Pffttt. Gone.

Between the multiple events set for Comerica Park and downtown Detroit and the Winter Classic itself set for The Big House in Ann Arbor, some 260,000 tickets were expected to be distributed to events. That doesn't count the thousands, maybe tens of thousands, who might have just descended on the area to be part of the atmosphere.

As the buzz surrounding the first Winter Classic involving a Canadian team and the wildly popular alumni events goes mute, as the expected record television audience reaches for the remote to switch to other programming, as the revenues -- expected to top the previous five Winter Classics and the two Canadian Heritage Classics -- vanish, the implication will be clear to anyone still paying attention: Both sides in this ludicrous dispute are royally screwed.

The obliteration of the NHL's marquee regular-season event is the symbolic crossing of the Rubicon, a stark acknowledgment that all that's been gained since the last ridiculous lockout ended has been in vain, has been frittered away by two sides so entrenched in their dislike and mistrust of each other that they are powerless to stop it.

The Winter Classic represents all the positives that came out of the ashes of the last lockout. It represents the fans' loyalty to the game and the value of pushing the envelope, and it is a shining example of things that work for a league that has so often flirted only with things that go bump in the night.

In the uncertain months after the last lockout, the NHL sold the heck out of the game. They took regular-season games to Europe, and they sunk money into the NHL Network and NHL.com. Teams in places such as Anaheim, Edmonton, Carolina and Buffalo made long playoff runs, and some won Cups. And guess what, sponsors and fans ate it up. Big time.

The salary cap rose from $39 million in the first post-lockout season (2005-06) to $70.2 million this past summer based on record revenues of $3.3 billion.

Sidney Crosby
Sidney Crosby scored the shootout winner against Buffalo in the first Winter Classic.

The Winter Classic embodied this new leash on hockey life. Where many had predicted cataclysm after the NHL became the first pro league to lose an entire season and playoffs to a labor dispute, the game charted a different, more upbeat path.

It was risky and it nearly fell apart early on that first snowy afternoon in Buffalo on the first day of 2008, when the ice, hurriedly set down after the Buffalo Bills' last regular-season game, cracked and chipped and the snow covered the puck. But when Sidney Crosby scored the winner in a shootout against Ryan Miller, the snowflakes made it look otherworldly and the event became an instant hit. Nary a person left Ralph Wilson Stadium that day unaffected, and those at home paused at the spectacle and said, "Hmm, hockey. Cool."

Trips to Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, Heinz Field and Citizens Bank Park followed. They weren't perfect, but each event added another layer of scope, more games, more events. More levels of hockey were involved. The past two years, HBO produced a wildly popular reality series that shone a light on the inner workings of NHL teams and players leading up to the Winter Classic. TV audiences soared, sponsors lined up to take part, revenues swelled.

It's exactly the kind of event that should want to make both sides try to put aside their differences, said Paul Swangard, head of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, a leading sports business think tank.

Ha. Imagine that.

Every sport looks to find a way to become culturally relevant, to resonate across the landscape and not just with their hardcore fans. The Super Bowl is the obvious standard bearer of such events.

There's the Kentucky Derby, the Indianapolis 500.

The NBA, which returned from its own lockout last season for its annual Christmas Day slate of games, has created a niche with those Yule contests.

Swangard called it a "brilliant stroke" for the NHL to fill a void created by the departure of college football from its traditional stranglehold on Jan. 1 programming and create something unique with the Winter Classic.

"This was an ambitious plan to keep the momentum going," Swangard said.

The loss of this event now serves as a symbol of the problems facing the league.

"I would think that would be a setback for them in the rebuilding of the fan base that will have to occur," Swangard said.

It begs the question, Swangard suggested: "If you all are really in this business together, wouldn't it be something worth saving?"

The answer, perhaps inevitably, appears to be no.

When asked about the possibility that the Winter Classic would be canceled, Fehr told reporters at a charity game in Chicago on Friday "it reinforces the notion that the NHL isn't interested in the money. I hope they don't do it."

Of course, the players, who lifted not one finger to create the entity that is the Winter Classic other than play the game, are completely blameless in this equation.

Just as the owners insist they are ready to close a deal if only the players weren't so intransigent.

Did we mention living in a bubble?

At this point, it's not so much about saving the Winter Classic -- there was some talk at the league level of canceling it last week when the NHL canceled games through the end of November -- but rather how significant the fallout will be when the inevitable happens.

One of the things both sides have agreed on was that the league was well-positioned to continue its revenue growth. The players and owners didn't agree on the degree to which revenues might reasonably have been expected to rise, but they both foresaw continued growth for the league.

The lack of a deal, the cancelation of more than a quarter of the regular season and now the spiking of an event that transcended the hard-core fan base that is so important to the league throws all that into uncertainty.

Bettman can talk about the fans' loyalties, but anyone who has paid any attention to the vibe around this lockout knows the feelings of anger and resentment are much different from past work stoppages.

And then there are the sponsors who, wooed and courted by the NHL, bought into the game and the plan for the game's growth.

If you're a sponsor locked in with the NHL, moving forward you have to wonder about renewing your deal with the league, especially toward the end of whatever deal gets forged. Let's say it's a six-year deal. Given that the league would prefer to lock out players rather than forge some sort of seamless transition from deal to deal, why would you touch this product late in any CBA?

And if you're a sponsor looking for a place to park your advertising or sponsorship monies, why you would turn to a sport whose signature move every time it's presented with a labor negotiation is nuclear winter?

And so we wait for the "pop" that will accompany the puncturing of the Winter Classic balloon this week, and we wonder again what the two sides actually see from inside their bubble.

Does Donald Fehr believe that the players' passive aggressive strategy -- one that ignores the obvious path to draw the league into a more moderate stance, to whit bargaining off the owners' previous offer -- will ultimately produce a better deal for the players? Or is this more about sticking it to Bettman than getting players back on the ice?

As for the NHL, who does business this way? Who starts a crucial set of negotiations aimed at keeping the gravy train on track with an offer that was guaranteed only to further entrench the players' dislike and distrust of Bettman and the owners? Who treats their own brand with such reckless disregard?

The questions, like most of what passes for negotiations now, are rhetorical.

Instead, the only thing that's real is the disappearance of the one event the players and owners should have done everything in their power to save.

Now, back to your bubble. Hope you enjoy the view.