NHL's Winter Classic could be cancelled this week: reports

After potentially wiping out all games through November, the NHL is expected to cancel its lucrative Winter Classic event later this week, according to reports.
The NHL lockout is threatening the cancellation of the league’s lucrative Winter Classic set for Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Jan. 1. (Paul Sancya/Associated Press)

After potentially wiping out games through November, the NHL is expected to cancel its lucrative Winter Classic event later this week, according to reports.

A source told ESPN that the league will cancel one of its signature events on Thursday, while The Canadian Press reports the announcement will come Friday.

Last Friday, the league announced the possible cancellation of 326 regular-season games — or 26.5 per cent of the season — should the entire month of November be lost due to the lockout.

Speculation quickly grew that the Winter Classic and the all-star game would also be cancelled. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Friday that the status of those events wasn’t on the league’s agenda for this week.

But, according to the contract the league signed with the University of Michigan to use its stadium for the Winter Classic, the NHL would recover all but $100,000 US of its $3-million rental fee if it was to cancel the event by Nov. 2 or sooner.

If a cancellation comes Nov. 3 or after, the league would also have to reimburse the university for any "out-of-pocket expenses reasonably occurred" in connection with the outdoor game.

The annual Winter Classic was set for Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich., a contest featuring the Red Wings against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Jan. 1.

It's believed the league would stand to lose more than the estimated $30 million it earned from last year's Winter Classic in Philadelphia if the 2013 edition was cancelled.

Expected world record

Organizers were expecting a crowd that would eclipse the world record of 104,173 who attended the "Big Chill" NCAA game at the University of Michigan in 2010 and an increased number of secondary events — including alumni, junior, college and American Hockey Leagues games — were slated for a second outdoor venue at Comerica Park in Detroit.

"While the game may be Jan. 1, I knew that (a decision on the Winter Classic) was coming sooner than people thought," sports marketer Brian Cooper said Monday. "Say you're a bank and you're going to bring down your top 150 wealth management clients and they're going to block off New Year's Day — you have to give that a lot of advance, especially if it's New Year's Day."

Cooper, the president and CEO of S&E Sponsorship Group, represents a number of corporate clients who do business with the NHL.

He views the pending cancellation of the Winter Classic as a significant moment in the league's ongoing labour dispute. The game at Michigan's "Big House" was one he thought had a tremendous amount of potential because of the inclusion of the Maple Leafs, the first Canadian team to participate.

"This is the first year that it really affects Canada," said Cooper. "There was going to be a lot of in-market (sponsorship) activations, there were going to be a lot of hosting opportunities, there were going to be consumer promotions. …"This was a big date."

No set plans

The two sides have not met since the NHL rejected the NHLPA’s three proposals on Oct. 25 in Toronto. This was after the union rejected a 50-50 offer of all hockey-related revenue from the league two days earlier.

Daly told ESPN in an email on Monday that the two sides have no immediate plans to meet in the hope of finding a resolution to the 44-day lockout.

"No new news," he wrote. "We withdrew our most recent proposal on Friday, and now we are spending time thinking about our next proposal and how best to get closer to a resolution. We hope the union is doing the same thing. Given the fact that the union refused even to discuss our last proposal, it would appear that we still have a large gulf to bridge."

With files from The Canadian Press