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Winter Classic latest casualty of labor dispute

By Steve Keating

TORONTO (Reuters) - The Winter Classic became the latest casualty in a bitter labor dispute between National Hockey League (NHL) owners and players on Friday, when the league cancelled the showcase event with negotiations stalled.

The New Year's day extravaganza featuring Original Six rivals the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings was scheduled to be played at the University of Michigan's football stadium in Ann Arbor, attracting a potential NHL record crowd of over 110,000 fans to the venue known as the Big House.

But with negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement at a standstill, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly made the announcement that the game was off.

"The logistical demands for staging events of this magnitude made today's decision unavoidable. We simply are out of time," Daly said.

"We are extremely disappointed, for our fans and for all those affected, to have to cancel the Winter Classic and Hockeytown Winter Festival events."

The classic joined hundreds of regular season games already cancelled since the league locked out players on September 15.

The NHL Players' Association (NHLPA) blamed both on league owners.

"The NHL's decision to cancel the Winter Classic is unnecessary and unfortunate, as was the owners' implementation of the lockout itself," NHLPA executive director Don Fehr said in a statement.

"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."

Fehr called on the league to make a quick return to the bargaining table.

Many had speculated the Winter Classic would have marked the resumption of NHL play.

Now, with a final deadline for cancelling the entire season looming, perhaps early in the new year, the league could be facing the loss of its second season in eight years.

The season was to start on October 11 and a week ago the league scrapped all games until November 30.

It is the fifth time in 20 years the NHL has been stopped because of a labor dispute. The last was in 2004-05, when the entire season was wiped out.

REVENUE SPLIT

The lockout was imposed after team owners and players were unable to reach an agreement on how to split $3.3 billion in revenue.

In its last offer the NHL presented a six-year proposal that called for an equal split of hockey-related revenue.

The union offered three counter-proposals on October 18 that the league quickly shot down, saying later all failed to approach a 50-50 revenue split.

There have been no official talks since.

Massive logistics, resources, manpower and financial guarantees that go into staging the one off event which has become the NHL's flagship property and prime marketing tool led to its cancellation.

The NHL had grand plans of turning this year's outdoor game into a two-week festival with multiple venues, including another rink at the Detroit Tigers' Comerica Park, where alumni and minor league games would be played.

In just five years, the classic has gone from a one-off novelty to the NHL's signature event.

What began as a tribute to hockey's outdoor roots has quickly grown into a marketing colossus that has brought the league unprecedented exposure.

The inaugural classic in 2008 was staged at Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the Buffalo Bills, while the next two editions melded baseball and hockey traditions with the NHL placing the extravaganza in two of America's sporting shrines, Chicago's Wrigley Field and Boston's Fenway Park.

The classic returned to a football stadium in 2011 when the Pittsburgh Penguins hosted the game at Heinz Field while last year's event was played Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.

"We know our fans were excited to see this historic Original Six outdoor encounter in a couple of months and we are disappointed for them," said Tom Anselmi, president and chief executive officer of Maple Leaf Sports.

"However, we know that the NHL remains committed to achieving an agreement that is fair for the players and the member clubs, and one that will be good for the fans and our game."

(Editing by Julian Linden and Gene Cherry)

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