In 2008, the National Hockey League (NHL) adapted an idea that would change the future of the league. Given the fact that so many players began their Stanley Cup dreams playing pick-up games on a frozen pond in the winters where they grew up, why not tap into that experience and make a regular season game take place outdoors? Thus, the NHL Winter Classic was formed, to outstanding reviews and great success in both attendance and television ratings. But now, six years later, the league has gotten greedy. This year, in addition to the Winter Classic, they have on the schedule the all-Canadian Heritage Classic and a four-game “stadium series”, where historic baseball stadiums have ice rinks built on their fields to have the game outdoors.
The Winter Classic was first pitched to the NHL by NBC Sports’ Executive Vice President, Jon Miller in 2004. Perhaps inspired by the Heritage Classic one year earlier, where the Edmonton Oilers hosted the Montreal Canadiens in an outdoor game, Miller asked if an outdoor game at Yankee Stadium was possible, possibly featuring the New York Rangers as a ratings draw. Miller’s matchup did not happen that year, drawing too much resistance from the Rangers and the Yankees for such an untested idea. But the league did eventually come around to the idea, having the first matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Buffalo Sabres in 2008 on New Year’s Day.
The Winter Classic was an instant hit. Ralph Wilson stadium, the location for the original Winter Classic, held more than 70,000 people to watch Sidney Crosby and the Penguins defeat the Sabres 2-1 in a shootout. The ratings, while not high compared to primetime television, were extremely high for a NHL regular season game. It was also perhaps helped along by the presence of an HBO series, HBO 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic, which followed the players, coaches and staff in the weeks leading up to the Winter Classic, giving a rare behind the scenes look into the lives of NHL players. The success of both the Winter Classic and its HBO special caused the league to make both an annual event.
Since then, the Winter Classic has taken part in many historic stadiums and parks, including Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, Soldier Field, and Wrigley Field. The success both in ratings and in ticket sales has driven every organization in the league to ask to be a part of future Winter Classics, either as the host team or as a visitor. In order to accommodate all the requests, the league expanded upon the idea. This season saw the creation of a four-game “stadium series”, ending last night when the Chicago Blackhawks defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-1. The league has also resumed the Heritage Classic, an outdoor game between two Canadian teams. Canadian teams were usually excluded from the Winter Classic, for fear that any game involving them would hurt ratings in the United States. The creation of these two additional events has led to outcry from some NHL fans, who have had enough of the outdoor games.
Many have argued that the increased numbers of outdoor games created by the league has diminished the unique quality of the Winter Classic. Originally seen as a one-time annual event, it was a special game that many felt could solidify the NHL in primetime television. One sportswriter stated that the Winter Classic allowed the league to “own New Year’s Day in the same way baseball owns the Fourth of July and football owns Thanksgiving.” But with the inclusion of the stadium series and the Heritage Classic, the Winter Classic is no longer the only outdoor game of the year. It is by far the biggest, drawing over 100,000 people into its stands this past year and garnering a record-breaking 8.2 million television viewers, but what made the game special was its unique quality. With each passing outdoor game, it becomes more and more like a normal regular season game than a special event.
The league has no reason to stop the Winter Classic or the other outdoor games. In fact, it has already been announced that the Washington Capitals will be the host team for the 2015 Winter Classic, while the Winnipeg Jets will take part in the 2015 Heritage Classic. With the ratings and the attendance numbers where they are, the league would be foolish to stop milking the cash cow. So for many, who say enough with the outdoor games, their protests will fall on the league’s deaf ears.
This article is one in a series, provided daily, which provides coverage, analysis and predictions for NHL fans.
By Jonathan Gardner