Frank Seravalli: What's NHL's rush to cancel Winter Classic?

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The Flyers and Rangers participated in last season's Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)

LAST WEEK, when the NHL canceled its entire slate of games for the month of November in order to free up arenas dates, the league reportedly sent an accompanying memo to clubs.

Before immediately relinquishing dates to booking agents, the NHL wanted clubs to hang on to them for an additional couple of days - you know, in case last-ditch talks with the players' association proved meaningful.

We all know how that turned out. There are now eight additional dates available at the Wells Fargo Center next month.

We will have an even better idea how this 46-day-old lockout will turn out this week, since the NHL reportedly is set to bang the Winter Classic featuring Detroit and Toronto a full 2 months before the puck is set to drop in Ann Arbor, Mich., in front of the biggest crowd ever to witness an ice hockey game.

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Before this lockout even began, many viewed the Winter Classic at Michigan's "Big House" as the NHLPA's biggest bargaining chip. The thinking is that the NHL would do anything in its power to make a deal and avoid sacrificing its biggest single-event revenue source.

Put simply, it's the only game the NHL can actually get viewers in the United States to tune into. Last season's Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park averaged 3.75 million viewers on NBC; all six games of last spring's Stanley Cup finals between Los Angeles and New Jersey averaged 3 million viewers.

Add in the sold-out gate - which, with temporary seating, could approach 115,000 - along with crazy merchandise sales, sponsorships and the participation of a hockey-mad Canadian city for the first time, and you have an idea the type of rake the Winter Classic has been.

If the NHL were to ax the Winter Classic this week, as many reports have indicated, you can pretty much kiss the entire season goodbye.

For one, it would further reduce the amount of revenue available for players and owners to divide. With players taking an absolute reduction of revenue share regardless, receiving 50 percent (instead of 57 percent) of less is an even bigger bang to the wallet.

More important, it would represent an unwillingness on the NHL's behalf to bargain in good faith.

Canceling the Winter Classic at this point simply isn't a necessity.

According to an executed copy of the league's contract with the University of Michigan, as available in full on AnnArbor.com, the NHL has already paid $100,000 toward the $3 million venue rental fee.

Another $250,000 is due Friday. Another $1 million is due on Dec. 1, when the league would be given the keys to begin building the rink. A big chunk of the remainder is due on Dec. 28, just a few days before the Jan. 1 puck-drop, with some still due on Jan. 18.

According to the contract, the NHL can cancel the Winter Classic up until the day of the event, pretty much without penalty. With the exception of the $100,000 paid up front, every dollar toward the venue rental fee is refundable.

I don't pretend to know the first thing about event planning, especially one of this magnitude, but I would think that a league that has put on five of these outdoor festivals already has this down to a science by now.

Yes, there are tickets that would need to be refunded - and fans need advance notice as to booking hotels and/or flights. And the alumni, college hockey, AHL and major junior games will need to be moved indoors from Detroit's Comerica Park. Still, a drop-dead date of Dec. 1 should give everyone - broadcasters, sponsors, and other league entities - plenty of time to make alternate arrangements.

One thing that may need to be canceled sooner rather than later is HBO's award-winning "24/7" series featuring the Red Wings and Maple Leafs, which usually begins filming in the third week of November.

But for the NHL to walk away from $100,000 at the University of Michigan on Dec. 1 would be like one of us dropping a $20 on a bad bet. You pick up the pieces and move on.

The Winter Classic is the NHL's marquee regular-season event, the time of year when most casual hockey fans actually believe the season starts. For the die-hard fan, it is a triumphant celebration of what makes the game great. To cancel the game this week would be a slap in the face to all - including the players - and a sign to start looking for something else to cheer for this winter.

 

Slap shots

NHL players received escrow checks from their respective clubs on Tuesday, a return of 7.8 percent of last year's salary that was held. For players such as Ilya Bryzgalov, who earned $10 million, it was a whopping check worth approximately $780,000 in pre-taxed income . . . The Czech Republic's ice hockey federation fined its Chomutov club approximately $1,554 after its fans aimed racist chants at Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds during a contest on Sunday as a member of the Liberec White Tigers.

 


Contact Frank Seravalli at seravaf@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @DNFlyers. For more Flyers coverage and opinion, read his blog at philly.com/FrequentFlyers.