ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — The NHL has canceled the 2013 Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium.
The signature event between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs is the latest casualty from the labor dispute that has put the season on hold, a person familiar with the situation told The Associated Press on Friday. The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the league had not yet announced the move, said the NHL will schedule its next Winter Classic at the iconic stadium that seats more than 100,000 people.
There have been no labor negotiations since Oct. 18, when the players’ union countered a league offer with three proposals. Those were all quickly rejected by the NHL. Since then, a league-imposed deadline to play a full season has passed, and last week the NHL cancelled all games through Nov. 30.
Detroit and Toronto, two of the league’s Original Six teams, were scheduled to play outdoors on Jan. 1 at the stadium known as the Big House and the league was hoping the matchup would break the world record for hockey attendance. Michigan and Michigan State’s hockey teams drew a record 104,173 fans in 2010.
Buffalo, Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have all hosted the Winter Classic, but the crowd for a game at Michigan Stadium was expected to draw the league’s largest crowd with tens of thousands of fans coming from Canada to see its first team play in the event. The last Classic at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park drew 46,967, and the New York Rangers beat the host Flyers 3-2.
The labor dispute, which began Sept. 16, had already forced 326 games to be wiped out from Oct. 11 through Nov. 30, but losing the sixth annual outdoor extravaganza is the biggest blow yet for the league and its players.
In the rental agreement between the NHL and the University of Michigan, there was a clause regarding a cancellation due to a work stoppage. If the game was called off by Friday, the NHL would lose only a $100,000 deposit that it already paid. The league would incur further losses, including paying back Michigan for expenses it made, if a decision to wipe out the game came after Friday.
The NHL was to pay a total of $3 million — over multiple installments — to rent Michigan Stadium. A $250,000 payment was scheduled to be made Friday.
The cancellation is a strong reality check that this fight between the league and the players’ association has no end in sight. The sides have remained in contact in recent days, but none of those discussions have led to any new negotiations.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and players’ association special counsel Steve Fehr have spoken several times over the course of this week and seem to be moving closer to setting up a time to get together.
Daly said that Superstorm Sandy didn’t prevent the sides from returning to negotiations this week.
“No meetings have been scheduled yet, but we have had an ongoing dialogue,” Daly wrote in an email to The Associated Press on Friday.
The NHL has already said that it will be impossible to play a full regular-season because of the lockout, and even if the league is able to reschedule some games that were previously called off, it seems unlikely that the Winter Classic can be moved to a new date or location this season.
The league has said a deal needed to be completed by last week in order to have a full season, beginning on Nov. 2. It didn’t happen. The All-Star game, and perhaps the entire season, could be next on the chopping block.
In its most recent proposal, the NHL offered the union a 50-50 split of hockey-related revenues, which exceeded $3 billion last season, but that offer was rejected. The players responded with their three offers that went nowhere.
The NHL proposal was contingent on the league playing a full season, which now won’t happen. The league has called that its best offer and has since pulled it back.
“Last week we had a proposal to save a full season on the table. That has since been withdrawn,” Daly told the AP. “That creates a different environment for talks.”
Players earned 57 percent of revenue in the recently expired contract, in which a salary cap was included for the first time. Owners originally sought to bring that number below 50 percent this time before their most recent offer. The players’ association tried to get talks restarted last week, but was turned away by the NHL because the union declined to agree to bargain off the framework of the league’s offer or issue another proposal with the league’s offer serving as a starting point.
Players want negotiations to resume without any preconditions.
There is a major divide between the sides over how to deal with existing player contracts. The union wants to ensure that those are all paid in full without affecting future player contracts. League Commissioner Gary Bettman expressed a willingness to discuss the “make whole” provisions on existing contracts, but only if the economic portions of the league’s offer are accepted first by the union.
This is the third lockout in Bettman’s tenure. The first forced a shortened 1994-95 season, and the second led to the cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season — the only time a major North American professional sports league lost a full season to a labor dispute.
This Winter Classic was the first one scheduled for a college stadium — after the previous five were played in NFL or baseball stadiums — and the first to plan other ice events in a different venue as part of the celebration.
Comerica Park, home to the American League champion Detroit Tigers, was supposed to host The Hockeytown Winter Festival and the NHL Alumni Showdown. Those events are also casualties of the lockout.
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