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Why it’s OK the NHL canceled the 2013 Winter Classic

Getty imagesThe NHL Winter Classic has a formidable spirit. It's a spirit that cuts through its over-sponsored corporate veneer, the limited scope of its participants and its inherent inequities as a regular-season contest. (Seriously: My team's two points secured in a blizzard are worth the same as your team's two points secured in a vacuum?)

It's a spirit that cuts through the saccharine, romantic hyperbole of boys on the pond that NBC dresses up the event with each season. It cuts through the apathy and sarcasm with which the U.S. sports media greets all things hockey, and forced them to praise the game.

[Related: NHL pulls plug on signature outdoor game due to lockout]

It cuts through all of this because the Winter Classic is something the National Hockey League boldly tried and succeeded with, which as any puckhead knows is Halley's Comet rare given the hilarious mismanagement of the NHL by its stewards through the decades.

The Winter Classic is something we could point to, through all of the game's embarrassments and confusion and unfulfilled potential, and proudly say that they got it right.

But that spirit couldn't cut through the chains of the lockout; the cold steel that's kept the players off (North American) ice for close to two months and that's bound up the talks between Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr into a stalemate.

So the NHL on Friday canceled the 2013 Winter Classic at the Big House of the University of Michigan, along with a week's worth of a events at Comerica Park (some since rescheduled), the nostalgia of alumni games, attendance records, revenue records, the travel plans of tens of thousands of fans in the U.S. and Canada, the profit aspirations for thousands of local businesses in Michigan, an afternoon of programming for NBC, the Reebok spring catalog featuring new sweaters and the wants and desires of countless others caught in the collateral damage.

And it was for the best.

Fehr called the cancellation "unnecessary." At this point, it was mandatory.

Some NHL fans have been summarily obsessed with the romantic idea of the Winter Classic As The Great Cleansing. That the hatred and anger of the lockout would be overwhelmed by the boundless enthusiasm of a season reborn in the January air in front of 115,000 fans.

[Also: NHL promises to hold 'next' Winter Classic in Michigan]

If you're someone that held onto that dream, I'd politely ask you to wake the [expletive] up.

Did you really want that? Did you really want to see the players going through the motions of an HBO series and an outdoor game and promotional events after the NHL denigrated them as cattle and took money out of their pockets? To hear "lockout angst" replace "ice conditions" as the media obsession?

Did you really want to stomach Bettman spewing platitudes about a game that had been reduced to a bargaining chip, and about the importance of "the greatest fans in the world" who ranked somewhere behind the price of massage therapists on the NHL's lockout radar?

Did you really want the Detroit Red Wings -- who asked two weeks ago for the game to be canceled -- to hastily put on the event? Did you really want to run the risk of empty seats at the Winter Classic?

Did you really want to experience an event that has become appointment viewing for hockey fans and have it feel as hungover as you are on New Year's morning?

I can barely handle the charade that would be a shortened season, let alone the window dressing of the Winter Classic and the All-Star Game. We already know the players don't give a toss about the latter; it'd be a shame if their enthusiasm was reduced for the former because of the lockout. The Winter Classic doesn't need to be a holiday in which mom and dad smile for the kids before the divorce is final.

GettyThis season, should it happen, will be of the "hold your nose and swallow the medicine" variety. The players will be bitter. The fans will vacillate between apathetic, outraged and relieved. We'll never know how the owners feel because we imagine their Bettman-ized muzzles will remain on through the year.

So I can wait a year. Because as much as CANCELLATION has been the headline, it's essentially postponement. Ann Arbor will get its outdoor game. Detroit will get its Winter Hockey Festival.

All of the things we've lost this season can be regained.

(OK, most of the things: If the Winter Classic shifts to 2014, then it goes from having a niche on New Year's Day to potentially butting heads with the first NCAA football playoff games. An outdoor attendance record for hockey is a tremendous story and could still grab headlines; but that's the national focus in the U.S. that day, for sure.)

[Nick Cotsonika: Wayne Simmonds won't let racist incident ruin Euro trip]

I've felt from the start that the NHL's hubristic belief that the fans will come back at any cost was misguided; that it underestimated the levels of apathy and anger, and the way social media has allowed fans to be more confident in expressing and acting on those feelings.

They believe the fans will come back.

Not all of them will.

But the same doesn't hold for the Winter Classic.

Come Jan. 2014, every seat in the Big House will be filled, and then some. Every seat at the alumni games will be filled. The jerseys will fly off the shelves. The core television audience will watch history be made. Maybe we'll even get another '24/7', featuring Pavel Datsyuk of the Wings and Roberto Luongo of the Leafs (hey, we can dream).

The brand will remain strong. The bile from the lockout will have faded. The willingness of players to go beyond the call to promote the league will slowly return, especially as it pertains to playing in the Classic. The time will be right again for this uniquely glorious mix of nostalgia, wonder and unpredictability, and the NHL will have time to do it right.

If there's one thing we know about the Winter Classic is that the thrill of the event is dictated by the conditions under which it's played.

It shouldn't have been played under these conditions.

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