Cancellation is a serious blow to fans, host city

Few hockey purists will bemoan Wednesday's announcement that the NHL has canceled the 2005 All-Star Game in Atlanta.

Players selected for the annual event often begged off participating, citing sudden medical maladies or family commitments, preferring a midseason rest to a midseason weekend of glad-handing and signing autographs. Those who showed up often appeared disinterested. During the 2001 event in Denver, Pavel Bure left the game -- as well as the Pepsi Center and the city -- during the third period because he'd booked an early flight home to Florida.

But even if the games themselves have all the urgency of a field of dairy cows in midsummer, and half the body contact, make no mistake -- the All-Star Game is a big deal to both the hosting city and the league, and its sudden evaporation is a serious blow to a league already flirting with total irrelevance.

The All-Star Game usually generates between $15 million and $18 million in revenue for the host city, Frank Supovitz, group vice president for NHL events and entertainment, said following Wednesday's announcement.

"There's no question it's a huge hospitality event for us and one that is greatly anticipated by all of our sponsors. It's a big celebration," Supovitz said.

Beyond the economic spin-off for the host city, it's almost impossible to say what is at stake in terms of corporate goodwill and future investment with the cancellation of the annual schmooze-fest.

Supovitz said the league was expecting to host 5,000 "in-bound" guests for All-Star weekend, including sponsors, celebrities, players and their families and other corporate types, not to mention the collective NHL brass.

This number is smaller than similar corporate events in other professional sports leagues, Supovitz said. But in the absence of an Atlanta weekend, what is lost to the league?

Will those sponsors find some other event at which to ply their wares, promote their products, spend their money, schmooze and generally frolic about? When hockey returns and with it the All-Star Game, will those same clients be available for such corporate glad-handing?

Supovitz said the NHL noticed no lasting impact in 1995 when the All-Star Game in San Jose was canceled as a result of a 103-day lockout. That game was canceled prior to the resolution of the dispute that left the league with a 48-game slate.

San Jose was given the 1997 All-Star Game and remains one of the strongest franchises in terms of fan base and fan appeal in the league.

But hockey is in a dramatically different place on the American sports/entertainment totem pole now than it was a decade ago. Even before the lockout began at 12:01 on Sept. 16, hockey's corporate profile had taken a huge hit.

That has only been exacerbated by the lack of progress in resolving the labor dispute.

Many will jump to the conclusion that the cancellation of the All-Star Game is a foreshadowing of the formal cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season, especially coming a day after the players' association brass met with team representatives in Toronto to reinforce their resolve to wait out the league over owners' demands for a salary cap.

Although it seems almost certain the current lockout of the NHL players, now in its seventh week, will last throughout the season, that and the All-Star cancellation are mutually exclusive.

"The reason that the All-Star Game was canceled at this juncture is primarily because we are no longer operationally capable of staging a first-class event for our fans," Supovitz said. "It's like building a house. You need to have the plans and the building supplies. Plans can't be drawn up. There's just no time to do that."

With hundreds of hotel rooms booked and convention space reserved for fan events, another major theme of the annual All-Star weekend, it was decided to cancel now rather than later.

"It really is all about whether we can execute the event we planned," Supovitz said.

In a city like Atlanta -- where fan support has been difficult to cultivate, especially given the Thrashers' failure to make the playoffs in their first five seasons -- the All-Star Game was seen as a huge perk. Its cancellation, although no surprise given no NHL games have been played and none are on the horizon, still comes as a disappointment.

"There's never a good time to announce something like this," Thrashers general manager Don Waddell said. "I think it goes in line with everything else that's going on. Yes, we're disappointed. But it goes second to the fact we're disappointed at where we're at, not playing hockey. We'll get [the All-Star Game] back here."

No date has been given for a return to Atlanta, which has never hosted the game, but it's believed 2008 is a likely option. Phoenix will host the 2006 All-Star Game, provided the league is operational, and the 2007 bid process is under way.

NHL teams prepare detailed bids to host the All-Star Game, following a 45-page guide prepared for the league outlining the requirements of the host team, arena and city itself.

In the past the event has been used as an incentive to new teams to reach season-ticket goals and a reward to those teams that have met such goals. Teams that have moved into new buildings are also usually presented with a chance to showcase their new digs. With 30 teams, the opportunity to play host to such a high-profile event is a rare one.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.