Winter Classic Risks Losing Relevance
Published: Tuesday, February 4, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, February 4, 2014 02:02
Everyone remembers the first NHL Winter Classic in 2008. Held at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., the game provided an aura of newness, a sense that the league was past its 2004-2005 lockout and had finally grasped that a better fan experience was necessary. The snowy outdoor game ended in a shootout win for the Pittsburgh Penguins over the Buffalo Sabres, with NHL golden child Sidney Crosby netting the game winner.
Ratings were high. The in-stadium record audience was thrilled. The league prospered.
So it was a given that the league would continue to run an outdoor game on New Year’s Day. The Winter Classic offers a day of excitement each year when nostalgic fans can remember lacing up the skates and playing pond hockey. The weather adds a wrinkle that changes the entire nature of the fan and player experiences, bringing hockey back to its wintry roots.
But the NHL has made an interesting decision this season in its introduction of its Stadium Series this year. The 2014 series consists of four outdoor matchups, three of which have already occurred: the Los Angeles Kings versus the Anaheim Ducks at Dodger Stadium on Jan. 25, the New Jersey Devils versus the New York Rangers at Yankee Stadium on Jan. 26, the New York Islanders versus the New York Rangers again at Yankee Stadium on Jan. 29 and the upcoming matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks at Soldier Field on March 1.
Adding more outdoor games is a crucial mistake by the NHL. First, the higher frequency of outdoor games affects the novelty of the event. The Winter Classic works so well because it is unique and happens on New Year’s Day every year. When the league puts forward three outdoor games in one week in January, the outdoor experience loses some of its luster.
The less unique fan experience, however, is not the only factor that makes the Stadium Series a bad decision. The NHL season is nearly three-quarters complete, and the playoff chase is starting to heat up. Hockey, obviously, is meant to be played on ice, and with this winter’s unpredictable weather, ice conditions have not been optimal for a fair playing surface. For teams like the Rangers, Devils and Islanders, every point counts toward making the playoffs. And for teams like the Ducks, Kings, Blackhawks and Penguins, a lost point because of sub-optimal playing conditions can be the difference between home ice in the playoffs and playing on the road.
Not only are the playoffs right around the corner, but so is another major hockey experience: the Olympics. Every four years, fans get to experience the best talent that global hockey has to offer competing on the world stage. The concern for hockey fans is always player health when the Olympics come: First, they want their favorite players to be healthy so that their Olympic team plays well, and, second, they want to ensure that their players are not injured at the Olympics. While the first three games of the Stadium Series passed without major injury to any stars, merely exposing players to freezing weather or melting ice just weeks before the Olympics is a mind-boggling decision from the league.
Finally, injuries should not just be a concern regarding the Olympics. The Penguins and Blackhawks are two of the NHL’s premier teams and are loaded with high-priced, highly popular superstars. The March 1 date for a matchup at Soldier Field in Chicago is cutting it dangerously close to the playoffs, and with such unpredictable weather this year, a balmy day in early March could jeopardize the health of some of the teams’ most crucial players.
Revenue is important for the NHL. Viewership, which has grown exponentially in recent years, is also important. And being able to brand games as a unique, outdoor stadium event does improve fan experience and sell tickets and merchandise. But there has been growth in all of these categories in recent years without the additional outdoor games. If the league merely sticks to its principles of putting the best indoor, on-ice experience forward, it will maintain its success. Moderation in regard to outdoor hockey would ultimately prove a very wise decision for the NHL.
Matt Castaldo is a junior in the College. MORE THAN A GAME appears every Tuesday.