By Stu Hackel
There’s a chance, and it might be a serious chance, that the Winter Classic will be rained out this weekend, or at least postponed until Saturday evening or even Sunday. While the NHL understands the uncertain nature of an outdoor game (“Weather is part of the game’s DNA,” John Collins, the N.H.L.’s chief operating officer, told The New York Times. “Just being outdoors, it’s unpredictable.”), a change or cancellation would have some serious consequences and raise the question of whether the league has overemphasized this one game in a long season filled with many high points.
There’s no doubt that the Winter Classic has become something of a crossover hit on New Year’s Day, an ingenious spectacle that attracts a good number of casual fans along with the dedicated hockey audience both in the stadium and on TV. It produces a strong network rating (although last year’s Flyers-Bruins game at Fenway Park was down over the two previous games, which is one reason the NHL went for star power this time in the Capitals-Penguins/Ovechkin-Crosby matchup, enlisting HBO to help drive their efforts). Plus, the game makes money for the league, the host team and NBC. So why not risk the elements? The upside is too great not to throw the entire promotional weight of the NHL behind it.
But let’s look at the potential downside.
First, a delay in the game will almost certainly dent the TV audience as better college football matchups like the Rose Bowl in the late afternoon and the Fiesta Bowl in prime time become the competition. Moving the Winter Classic to Sunday is an unknown, but it’s hard to imagine that there won’t be some potential erosion as Sunday brings not just the NFL’s final regular season games, some with playoff implications, but also the start of the IIHF World Junior Championships medal round.
From a pure buzz standpoint, nothing in recent memory — or maybe ever — has been as heavily promoted by the NHL as this year’s Winter Classic. In fact, “overhyped” may be a better word, as a torrent of tune-in ads, publicity releases, NHL Network mentions, NHL.com stories about not only the Jan. 1 game but the HBO series and even last week’s Caps-Pens game, has dwarfed everything else going on in the league. Sometimes it feels as if the league has created a promotional caste system in which the Penguins and Capitals and all they do occupy some higher plane than the other 28 clubs.
Looking at NHL.com today, in the league’s current vision, major news like a GM being replaced in Calgary takes a back seat to Penguins alumni getting ready for a spin on the Heinz Field rink. The Winter Classic becomes “hockey’s signature spectacle” when — from a competitive standpoint — it’s nothing more than a regular season game.
But the stronger the manufactured pre-game buzz, the greater the chance for a letdown through postponement or cancellation.
While the dedicated hockey fan will watch this game at almost any time (unless he or she prefers watching Team Canada or Team USA in the WJC), the Winter Classic is more about drawing the interest of the casual fan and even the non-fan. It’s about extending their New Year’s Eve celebrations with the strange sight of an indoor game being played before tens of thousands in an open-air stadium. That’s what has worked so far for the NHL and it is what the weather puts in jeopardy on Saturday.
And that speaks to the enforced scarcity of outdoor games in the NHL. There has only been one annually until this season (there will be a second Heritage Classic game in February in Calgary, which has been almost entirely forgotten), with the league wanting to keep the Jan. 1 event unique. That may make good sense from a business standpoint, but when one considers the downside of losing that game to the elements, perhaps a rethinking of the NHL’s approach to outdoor games is in order.
The thought here is not to eliminate them, but spread the risk by expanding the concept. Why not have perhaps three or even five outdoor games each season? Keep the Winter Classic on Jan. 1, make it a marquee matchup for NBC — maybe a Stanley Cup Final rematch or a big stars game like this year’s contest. But let the Rangers and Islanders play outdoors as well, not on New Year’s Day, but maybe in November or March. The Maple Leafs could play the Senators in the autumn, the Red Wings could take on the Avalanche some time, too, with a couple more good rivalry games sprinkled in.
Change the teams each season, share the experience. Give the fans in other areas, both hardcore and casual, a chance to see outdoor NHL hockey that they’d never have experienced if forced to wait for the league, in its slowpoke pace of one or two outdoor games each a year, to choose their city as host. The games will be special for more fans and more teams. Imagine the excitement that was generated by the games at Wrigley Field and Fenway Park occurring in five different cities each year. And from a business perspective, the league would have more special inventory to sell to sponsors and other potential partners, the teams would have a nice windfall from the big gate, and their local TV rights holder would have a special game to tout.
Nothing can prevent bad weather from ruining the Winter Classic someday, if not this coming weekend. But a different approach to outdoor hockey in the future might help minimize the damage.