No Winter Classic would be tough blow for Canadian teams

The impending cancellation of this season's NHL Winter Classic should come as no surprise to those who have followed the labor negotiations (or lack thereof) between the NHL and NHLPA since the start of the lockout back in mid-September.

But it's still a tremendous disappointment, particularly for fans north of the border who have been eagerly anticipating the inclusion of a Canadian team in the NHL's hottest showcase since its inception back in 2008.

The New Year's Day game, which is scheduled to be held at Michigan Stadium, is supposed to be the first of six Winter Classics to feature a Canadian club, with the Toronto Maple Leafs facing off against the host Detroit Red Wings.

While the Winter Classic has been an instant success and a ratings hit in the United States for the NHL, it hasn't quite been that way in Canada, where fans have been mostly lukewarm to the event due to its lack of Canadian participants.

Last season's Winter Classic between the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers drew just 1.13 million viewers on CBC - the second-lowest total in the game's brief history.

While the 2013 event would give Canadian fans plenty more reasons to tune in - even if it does feature a team in the Maple Leafs that many across the country seem to love to hate - the real intrigue of the event would be to see if a Canadian team delivers strong ratings down south.

A successful showing by the Maple Leafs in the 2013 Winter Classic in television numbers - both for the game itself and the HBO "24/7" series which follows the participating teams leading up to the contest - could potentially open doors for future Canadian teams.

You would figure that, if and when the NHL finally gets its business in order and gets back to playing games, the Leafs would have first crack among Canadian teams to participate in a future Winter Classic. But whether that happens as soon as 2014 - assuming the league has the ability during its on-going squabble with the NHLPA to set up and plan for an event by then - is uncertain.

Given the damage to the NHL product that the current lockout has already inflicted, the NHL might just try to appease its fans and sponsors south of the border by returning to a tried-and-true formula when they get around to holding the next Winter Classic, meaning a return to an all-American team format.

That would likely mean relegating any Canadian teams interested in taking part in an outdoor game to the Heritage Classic, the event which kicked off this recent trend of outdoor hockey games back in 2003 in Edmonton, but has since been held only once in 2011 in Calgary in the shadow of the Winter Classic.

The NHL has already made plenty of losers thanks to its lockout and the Maple Leafs and their fans just happen to be the latest victims. In this case, however, the repercussions could have much longer lasting effects particularly for those who may have hoped that Canadian NHL teams might one day be a regular participant in the Winter Classic.

What was already a long-shot hope of having Canadian teams being regularly considered for participation in the Winter Classic looks like it's about to get even further away from becoming a reality.