Report: NHL has until Jan. 1 to pull out of Winter Classic, pay minimal fine

Will the NHL ever put a rink in at the Big House? If not it won't cost much. (Getty Images)

Should labor issues send the NHL into another lockout, the NHL has its bases covered on what it would cost to cancel the Winter Classic.

Thanks to the New York Times' Jeff Z. Klein, who pulled up the contract between the NHL and the University of Michigan, we know that it would cost the NHL only $100,000 to nix the annual outdoor game that is the league's seminal moment on the calendar (sans the Stanley Cup Final). What's more is that they have all the way until the new year to actually cancel the game and pay up the relatively small penalty.

So the cost to the NHL isn't much at all. Then again, that doesn't take into account what the revenue they won't be raking in should the Winter Classic not happen.

We're looking at a game that would set attendance records at The Big House in Ann Arbor, Mich. between two of the NHL's Original Six and biggest franchises in the Maple Leafs and Red Wings. Combine that with the increased number of activities in Detroit and we're undoubtedly talking about record revenues for the annual event, none of which obviously comes in if the game is cancelled.

If you were trying to find any incentive to force the owners' hands to get a season up and running, this could be one that fits the bill, the prospect of missing out on the Winter Classic. In essence we actually have a very soft deadline for the negotiations to try and find a resolution.

Even though the contract allows for the NHL to cancel the game until Jan. 1, the true date would have to be sooner than that. Unless the NHL goes ahead with building the ice rink in the stadium as if the game is still going to be played and then take their chances, we're probably looking at a deadline in late November/early December to make sure the game goes off as planned. You have to factor in training camps as well as the time it would take to make the rink for the game.

The cynic might point to this whole thing and say the NHL has been intending for this season to have a stoppage. That's some serious rear-end protection, reducing the risk for the NHL should the season still not be on come Jan. 1. But Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told Klein that this kind of provision is not uncommon for the NHL, possible lockout looming or not.

The N.H.L.’s contract with Michigan, approved by the university’s board of regents on Feb. 9, contains provisions that treat a work stoppage in a way similar to a “force majeure” cancellation brought about by act of God, riot, weather, disaster or any other cause beyond the league’s control.

"It's standard for us to include force majeure provisions in virtually all of our contracts," said Bill Daly, the N.H.L. deputy commissioner, "and if we anticipated the possibility of a work stoppage in particular, it certainly wouldn't have been unusual."

In the grand scheme of things, missing one edition of the Winter Classic is pretty insignificant in the CBA negotiations. We're talking about billions of dollars being discussed and the dent of maybe missing out on a few million should the Winter Classic not go off. But does the game carry a little more significance than just the revenue?

Remember, Gary Bettman has proclaimed that the NHL owns New Year's Day now with the Winter Classic so it can't lose any of that "traction" to college football. The Classic is a relative ratings bonanza for the NHL and considering the momentum that has been built in recent seasons feels to be on the verge of evaporating if labor issues force another stoppage.

Keep in mind that the NHL's use of the stadium ends on Jan. 9, when the rink needs to be completely removed. So it would seem like it's New Year's Day (or Jan. 2 if weather dictates) or bust for the Winter Classic, there's no fallback to recoup the lost potential revenue.

I admit it's hard to decipher a whole lot from this contract discovery. On the one hand the NHL doesn't have to pay very much at all if they have to cancel the reservation for the Big House on the first day of 2013, indicating it's little skin off their back if a lockout includes cancelling the Classic. At the same time it helps to underscore the value of the event.

At the least, it's something to think about.

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