The NHL's cancellation of its Winter Classic event marks a new low for a league that has become an expert in public relations excavations.
I’m not trying to convince you one cancelled game is in and of itself more heinous than the hundreds of regular-season contests already kiboshed in this latest lockout travesty that has become standard operating procedure for the league’s owners. However, there’s something exceedingly nauseating about both the symbolism and ramifications on the ground that would come with the cancellation of this marquee event.
To begin with, there’s the undeniable fact the Winter Classic has, in just half a decade, become one of the league’s hottest properties. For many, the outdoor showdown carries more cachet than the All-Star Game. The WC is also linked to HBO’s “24/7” behind-the scenes series, another recent and successful innovation. NBC, the U.S. network that broadcasts the game, has been very pleased with the ratings it receives from the New Year’s Day event.
But all the momentum the NHL has built with this product will be balled up and pitched into the trash the moment they mothball it. It doesn’t matter whether the league offers to re-stage this year’s game in the same city whenever it comes to its senses and ends this labor farce; the bitter residue of cancelling this particular WC, in this particular season, will linger for quite some time.
We’re talking about a Winter Classic that would have drawn more than 100,000 people to Michigan Stadium, demolishing the previous record for attendance at an NHL game. We’re talking about a significant financial infusion to a Detroit-area economy that has been battered as badly as any American city. We’re talking about two Original Six teams that have so many devoted followers, there was scheduled to be an unprecedented two NHL alumni games. We’re talking about fans so crazy about the sport, they also would’ve filled the stadium for the seven other games – two Ontario League matchups, an American League game and a four-game NCAA mini-tournament – set to be played in the days leading up to the Red Wings/Maple Leafs NHL showdown.
Those are the people NHL brass are about to slap across the face when the 2013 Winter Classic is shelved. Unless they have the memory span of an attention-deficit-addled goldfish, those consumers are bound to look back less than fondly on a business operation that put the Charlie Brown football down for them to kick, only to quickly and callously pull it back because NHL players wouldn’t happily accept a drastic pay cut.
Will many, if not most of those fans return once the lockout ends? I’m sure they will. But make no mistake – you pay a spiritual price for messing with the minds and hearts of people like this. You give people a window in which to find a disposable income source that doesn’t look down at them as disposable. You tell them that they matter, just not enough.
That’s something to bear in mind whenever the league issues its latest somber cancellation statement (which I’m now reading almost exclusively in the voice of Bane from the latest Batman movie). The NHL can pretend all it wants there will be no blowback for its actions, but I’ve got a sneaking suspicion you easily could fill Michigan Stadium with 100,000 people who swear off the product forever.
Just as the Winter Classic can create a lifetime of positive memories for hockey fans, so too can its cancellation leave an odor that curls people’s noses for the rest of their days.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His Power Rankings appear Mondays during the regular season, his column appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature Fridays.
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