BY DENNIS CHASE
TRAVERSE CITY — More bad news for Traverse City hockey fans.
The NHL is reportedly ready to pull the plug this week on the Winter Classic — the Jan. 1 game between Detroit and Toronto at Michigan Stadium. It's expected the preceding two-week Winter Festival at Comerica Park, which would include a Traverse City West-Traverse City Central showdown on Dec. 19, will also be canceled.
The NHL is in a lockout that's already forced cancellation of the Prospects Tournament, the Red Wings training camp at Centre ICE and the start of the regular season. The league and players union are still in a stalemate on a new collective bargaining agreement. A decision on the Winter Classic could come by Thursday.
"It doesn't sound too promising for us, which is disappointing," West coach Jeremy Rintala said. "It would have been something special for us to go down there."
The West-Central game would have been the last high school game played at Comerica Park, starting at 8:30 p.m. Sixteen teams were selected to participate in the Dec. 18-19 event.
"If it doesn't go, I feel really bad for the kids, not only the Central and West kids, but the other high school teams that were slated to take part in it," Central coach Chris Givens said.
Cody Inglis, Central's athletic director, said the schools have not heard a word from Olympia Entertainment, which is organizing the high school games.
"We have had absolutely no contact with anyone," Inglis said. "We're simply waiting on pins and needles like everyone else to see what the fate of that game is going to be. We're hopeful, yet the decision is out of our hands.
"To be honest, they're (Olympia Entertainment) caught in the middle of this, too," he added. "They don't know what to do because they haven't gotten any word from the NHL."
Lack of information has put the schools in a bind in terms of planning for the game, especially in regards to transportation and lodging.
The NHL has a contract with the University of Michigan for the Winter Classic. It reportedly calls for a $100,000 payment if the Classic is canceled before Nov. 3. After that, the league would also be on the hook for any other expenses. The contract does not cover events at Comerica Park, which gives Inglis a glimmer of hope.
"The only hope we might have is that because there are so many non-NHL events planned at Comerica — the AHL game, the junior game, the alumni game, the GLI tournament, and all the high school games — that somehow, someway they figure out a way to just get ice on Comerica even if they don't play the NHL game at U-M," he said. "That's the only thing we would hold out hope for, that the Ilitchs would come out and say, 'We don't want to cancel everything. If there's not going to be hockey this winter, we at least want to keep the minor, college, junior and high school games going."
That appears to be a longshot, though.
"I think the problem is that the NHL was going to build and fund the rink at Comerica," Givens said. "That was a tradeoff for the Wings agreeing to have the Winter Classic in the Big House in Ann Arbor rather than Detroit."
If the Winter Festival is canceled, Givens said the two teams would still play that night, but the game would held at Howe Arena.
Givens and Rintala are hoping in the event of a cancellation, that their teams be invited back if the Winter Classic and Winter Festival are rescheduled the following season, pending approval of a collective bargaining agreement.
"We would like to have the same chance to do it again next year," Rintala said. "But that won't be too popular of an answer with our seniors."
West and Central began tryouts Monday. The Titans had 39 players out, Central 37, although four are still playing football. The coaches expect to have their teams selected by Thursday.
West and Central open the day after Thanksgiving with the Titan Invitational at Centre ICE. The Trojans face Lake Orion in the first game that Friday while the Titans take on Warren De La Salle.