To hear the NHL tell it, the cancellation of the Winter Classic Friday was unavoidable. "We simply are out of time," said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.
Now, I'll buy Daly's admission that the league is "extremely disappointed, for our fans and for all those affected," especially since the owners -- who stood to pocket a great deal of change during the weekend -- count among those affected. But as for the assertion that time simply ran out on hockey's marquee event Friday... that's a tougher sell.
Count Donald Fehr among the skeptical. Shortly after the NHL released its statement, Fehr released his own, reminding the fans that the lockout and Friday's rubbish news remains entirely owner-driven:
The NHL's decision to cancel the 2013 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic is unnecessary and unfortunate, as was the owners' implementation of the lockout itself. The fact that the season has not started is a result of a unilateral decision by the owners; the players have always been ready to play while continuing to negotiate in good faith. We look forward to the league's return to the bargaining table, so that the parties can find a way to end the lockout at the earliest possible date, and get the game back on the ice for the fans.
Again, this statement was released on Friday. It only seems like a rerun.
Fehr has been saying since day one that the players are willing to negotiate while continuing to play, and while it makes for a nice line of rhetoric, it also makes no sense. What, exactly, would the players' motivation be for making any concessions at all when their jobs and salaries are uninterrupted?
Fehr admitted three days ago that the players were becoming frightened. They're beginning to bend, and that doesn't happen if they're still playing and the owners are still paying.
Yes, the cancellation of the Winter Classic was unnecessary, but that's because these negotiations should have been finished by now. Unfortunately, neither side has shown any urgency to do anything other than make overtures to the fans -- and wouldn't you know it, that's all Fehr's statement does.
In respect to the negotiations themselves, I'd argue that today's news wasn't unnecessary, at least from the owners' perspective.
Frankly, the Winter Classic's fate was sealed when Fehr admitted the players' concern. That's a moment of weakness, and if you're Gary Bettman, this is when you twist the knife and kill as much of their remaining resolve as you possibly can.
That's where the Winter Classic comes in. For months, the players have had the approaching event, one they believed the owners really, truly wanted, in their back pocket. It looked like leverage. It felt like leverage. At one point, maybe it even was leverage. And thus, the timing was just right for Gary Bettman and the owners to make like Gus Fring, step into the underground lab, and take a box cutter to the whole thing.
You thought this was invaluable to us? You thought we cared about this? Well, now it's dead. Clean it up.
In one ruthless action, the NHL reminded the NHLPA it means business. Sure, it may have seemed unnecessary. It may have seemed excessive. But that was the point. The owners are done with half-measures. This is about to get ugly.