In the most disappointing news yet for many fans, the NHL has cancelled the 2013 Winter Classic, which was to feature the Detroit Red Wings hosting the Toronto Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. By sacrificing this season's event on the altar of competitive negotiation, both the owners & players are putting the future of the Winter Classic at serious risk.
But first, let's have Story Time:
My youngest son just finished reading The Hobbit, and a scene from that book reminds me of what we're currently seeing today between the NHL's owners and players.
Early on in Bilbo's journey from his quiet home in the Shire to the Lonely Mountain, he and the company of dwarves happen upon three gigantic trolls gathered around a fire. Since they are cold & hungry, the dwarves can't resist the temptation of investigating, but after a bit of struggle, they end up in a bad spot:
A nice pickle they were all in now: all neatly tied up in sacks, with three angry trolls (and two with burns and bashes to remember) sitting by them, arguing whether they should roast them slowly, or mince them fine and boil them, or just sit on them one by one and squash them into jelly; and Bilbo up in a bush, with his clothes and his skin torn, not daring to move for fear they should hear him.
The trolls can't decide on how to proceed, but thanks to some antagonistic ventriloquism from Gandalf (who was in his own hiding spot), they keep arguing back and forth until the sun comes up, which (being trolls) turns them all to stone and saves the day for Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin & his crew.
You'll have to forgive me for drawing direct parallels between this story and our modern situation (something J.R.R. Tolkien was loath to do), but it just fits so nicely...
The trolls, of course, are the NHL & NHLPA negotiating teams, who are apparently so caught up in bickering over percentages here and HRR definitions there that they are willing to sacrifice more and more of the 2012-2013 season, which was set to be the league's most lucrative to date.
The dwarves (in a bit of a stretch) are hockey fans. Instead of being devoured, however, fans are simply desperate to open their wallets and pour money all over the NHL again as soon as the doors open. While some have become embittered, ticket cancellations are few and far between, giving the players & owners all the confidence they need that those sacks full of dwarf-meat won't spoil any time soon.
Look Out, Here Comes the Pigskin
The role of Gandalf, however? That may be played by college football, which is perhaps the big winner in today's news. I was driving along last week listening to Colin Cowherd on the radio, and he made an excellent point about challenges on the horizon for the Winter Classic. While it has carved out a nice niche for itself as the NHL's most successful regular season event, that's due in large part to the NCAA shifting its bowl schedule away from New Year's Day, with the juiciest football games coming days or weeks later than they used to.
Starting in the 2014-2015 season, however, that's all changing, with the four-team playoff system that will see semifinal games played on December 31, 2014 and January 1, 2015. Basically, the NHL now has one Winter Classic left before college football moves back and reclaims New Year's for its very own, something it will have no difficulty at all doing.
I'm sorry, hockey fans, but a regular season NHL game, even in a venue like the Big House in Ann Arbor, will get absolutely creamed in the TV ratings by something like Alabama-Oregon to set up who will play in the National Championship Game. Along with those viewers go the corporate sponsors, too.
The 2012 Winter Classic drew a paltry 2.4 TV rating, the worst in the event's history (with the best being a whopping 2.9 in 2009). Folks, the freaking Music City Bowl drew a 2.66 rating last time, and that was considered a disappointment! The bigger bowls will do 3-4 times that number, and when you toss in pre- and post-game shows which are sure to wrap around those championship playoff games, the NHL will do well to get casual sports fans to tune in for more than a few minutes just to see whether it's snowing.
So while the NHL owners and players quibble over how to slice & dice the billions of dollars hockey fans bestow upon them, the NCAA and its broadcast partners can snicker from the sidelines, knowing that when the dawn rises on their new college football playoff, the NHL Winter Classic will be doomed.