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Friday, November 2, 2012
The Classic will bounce back

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

If the Winter Classic was a snow globe of an idea, optically heartwarming, wildly successfully financially with the potential to grow exponentially, it is today something different.

With the formal announcement by the NHL Friday that the Jan. 1 game between the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium is another casualty of the ongoing labor dispute between the league and its players, it is now a snow globe bearing an ugly, jagged crack.

Whatever part of this season -- if any -- can be salvaged, this day will mark the moment when frustration will turn to disgust for an already disillusioned fan base. As well it should.

The cancellation of the Winter Classic reinforces that these are two parties oblivious to the world outside their stubborn inability to divvy up $3.3 billion in revenue.

This is a moment when both sides share equally in the shame of wiping out a game that had become the NHL's signature regular- season event. It is a stain that will take both sides a long time to wash away.

So, now what?

Make no mistake, the Winter Classic isn't broken, even if the process by which the league and its players go about trying to hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement is clearly and deeply flawed.

It, like so many things connected to the lockout, is collateral damage.

So this isn't about throwing out the baby with the bathwater. And kudos for the NHL, which agonized over this decision even as late as Friday morning, for immediately announcing that the Detroit Red Wings would host the 2014 Winter Classic and that the Toronto Maple Leafs would once again be the visiting team.

Presumably, the NHL will work with the Red Wings, the University of Michigan and all of their other sponsors and partners to restore what promised to be the most ambitious, and likely the most successful, of the Winter Classic events in a year's time. That's assuming, of course, the two sides can get a deal done in time for next season's game.

If part of this season is salvaged, it will bear the stigma of being lockout shortened. Whatever passes for a season will always be a season with an asterisk that will constantly remind us of the greed and obstinacy of both sides.

But next fall, when, assuming there is a CBA in place, a new season starts, the Winter Classic has the power, the potential, to be a bridge between the disgrace of the lockout and what the players and owners will be hoping is a fresh start.

Trust us, the Winter Classic will be a lot more effective in providing such a bridge than a smarmy "Thank you" or "Welcome back" painted on NHL ice surfaces.

Because the game has come to represent more than the outcome of a single game played out of doors: The Winter Classic has the power to help people remember what it is they love about hockey. And, maybe, it will help deaden the bitterness that will undoubtedly linger toward the NHL and its players.

Detroit and the Ilitch family and the Red Wings will no doubt prove to be excellent hosts, and there could hardly be a better city in which to hold an event that will be about rebirth, about putting disappointment in the rearview mirror.

That Canadians will flood across the border for the Winter Classic along with the Maple Leafs, adding a nice historic luster to the event, should also aid in soothing lingering lockout wounds.

Who knows what else the NHL might have in store surrounding the Winter Classic, but if COO John Collins' history is any guide, there will be more.

HBO has chronicled the lead-up to the last two Winter Classics with its award-winning reality series "24/7" and no doubt will be encouraged to return for a third go-round, as would have been the case this season. Sources have told ESPN.com that HBO wants to maintain its relationship with the NHL, and the Winter Classic remains a nice centerpiece for the series, although there have been discussions about taking the HBO experiment further, perhaps following teams during the playoffs.

The Winter Classic was one of those events that helped the NHL find another gear coming out of the last lockout. No doubt, the league will be looking at ways to use the existing footprint the Winter Classic has helped establish for both die-hard and casual fans as a springboard.

This season's event was to have featured two outdoor ice surfaces for the first time in Winter Classic history, one for downtown Detroit at Comerica Park and the other at the Big House for the actual Jan. 1 game.

Would post-lockout plans go even further?

Would the NHL want to hold two outdoor games in the same season, as it did a couple of years ago, when there was a Heritage Classic game in Calgary between the Flames and Montreal Canadiens a few weeks after the Winter Classic was held in Pittsburgh between the Penguins and Capitals? Perhaps schedule a game in Western Canada to placate Canadian fans maybe returning to Edmonton, site of the initial Heritage Classic back in 2003? How about having the Winnipeg Jets, just one year removed from their return to the NHL, visit the Oilers? What about a tournament involving the four Western Canada teams at an outdoor location?

Speaking of the Capitals, Washington owner Ted Leonsis, who has been one of commissioner Gary Bettman's staunchest hard-line supporters, has been promised a Winter Classic in the U.S. capital, and the belief was that such an event would have taken place in 2014. Not anymore. But that would also suggest the rescheduling of this season's game will push the Capitals back to 2015. It will also push back plans to expand beyond Original Six or big-market sites to places such as Minnesota, where the Wild would love to host a Winter Classic in the so-called State of Hockey.

With the NHL wanting to make a big splash in returning from the current lockout, perhaps it will take an aggressive look at having multiple outdoor games in the U.S. The idea has been broached in the past, and hosting a game in Minnesota during Hockey Weekend Across America, the annual grassroots hockey celebration in the U.S., might make sense in addition to the New Year's Day game.

Of course, the danger with the future of the Winter Classic is that fan anger or, worse, apathy leaves the NHL with empty seats and disappointed sponsors. The sporting landscape around Winter Classic time is also going to look different starting in 2014, when college football goes to its four-team playoff to determine a national champion.

The bottom line is that no one knows how much damage this lockout and the loss of an event like the Winter Classic, even for a year, will create or how long it will take to recover from said damage.

Having fans and sponsors turn away from the Winter Classic, while unlikely given the good will the event has created in the past five years, could turn the current fracture in the snow globe into a more permanent kind of fissure.

Still, if the NHL does rebound, as it did seven years ago, it won't be a surprise if the Winter Classic or its offspring will be the catalyst for some sort of revival -- and a salve for repairing what are bound to be wounds in the relationship between fans and sponsors and the game.