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2-on-1: Outdoor Games Bring Pleasures, Potential Pitfalls

Nov 30, 2009 – 1:00 PM
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Kevin Schultz

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Every Monday during the season two of our hockey writers will debate one topic. It's the 2-on-1. This week, Kevin Schultz and Chris Botta take a look at the trend of outdoor games in the hockey world.

Chris Botta: The outdoor game became all the rage in the NHL with the "Heritage Classic," the Canadiens at the Oilers in 2003 in front of 58,000 freezing fans at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton. The NHL then branded the "Winter Classic" to overwhelmingly positive press and fan reaction. The first was on New Year's Day 2008 in Buffalo between the Sabres and Penguins, won in a shootout with the deciding goal coming from Sidney Crosby. (The league could not have written a better script.) Last year was Detroit and Chicago in legendary Wrigley Field.

"Quite simply, (outdoor games) have each been a huge success for the NHL so far. ... It's kind of amazing considering the league's failures with television over the last two decades. "
-- Kevin Schultz
On Jan. 1, 2010 another classic baseball stadium plays host to NHL hockey when the Bruins host the Flyers at Fenway Park. Before we go into the many aspects of the outdoor games, Kevin, what have you thought about the three we've had so far?

Kevin Schultz: Quite simply, they have each been a huge success for the NHL so far. The league has found a way to break into the New Year's Day lineup which was, and still is, mainly college football territory. Not only that, they've done it with success in terms of hype, ticket sales and TV viewership all while appealing to that fussy hockey purist demographic that can't stand new things. It's kind of amazing considering the league's failures with television over the last two decades (see: glow puck, loss of ESPN, low ratings).

I'm clearly gushing about it, but there's really not a whole lot of a downside to it. The people who go to the games love it. The people who watch it at home love it. The kids really seem to love it. The players don't seem to mind (it's only one game, anyway). Am I wrong? Is there a criticism out there that I'm missing?

Chris Botta: No, the Winter Classic is pretty teflon -- although I'll do my best to punch holes in it by the time we're through! The game succeeds on two levels. First, there's the event. When the Winter Classic comes to your town -- no matter how small (Buffalo) or big (Chicago) -- it's a huge deal. This year's Classic in Boston should face a stiff test because, as cool as it is to have the game in Fenway, the Patriots and Celtics have a large part of Beantown's attention. Still, the Bruins vs. the Flyers with the Green Monster in the background will be memorable.

A less-heralded part of the success of the event is the date. All hockey fans now expect a unique NHL experience on New Year's Day. I remember being at my uncle's last year for a family gathering and he had on NBC -- just because he knew the Winter Classic was on. Traditions like that take a lot of time, but this one is building.

The stadium game concept has grown to the point where now there is a minor league outdoor game. It was just announced this week that Syracuse is hosting Binghamton in February at the New York State Fairgrounds. I thought that was a nice idea, kind of quaint -- the celebration of hockey in Upstate New York. What do you think of the American Hockey League outdoor game?

Kevin Schultz: Well, that one is a bit less teflon for me. Once you take off that big, shiny major league logo you're taking a risk no matter how sure a thing it is, especially given the economy. It does seem as though the organizers are going about it the right way (also the minor league way) and making it not only about the game. Their list of off-ice attractions is pretty long -- I want to see how they set up the hot tubs -- and should help ensure some success for the game. Putting it in Upstate New York is pretty much a no brainer -- it's either that or Minnesota -- but it's still minor league. I hope that won't hurt them too much simply because the Sabres aren't on the ice.

So Chris, where do you think we're headed next year? Any chance Yankee Stadium gets a game? Toronto? Pennsylvania?

Chris Botta: Yankee Stadium will host a Winter Classic at some point in the next five years. I can share first-hand knowledge from my time with the Islanders that, although Long Island's team put in all the leg work in trying to secure a game at the old Yankee Stadium, the NHL cut out the Islanders from being part of it. The league wants the Rangers and another big-market team not from New York. You have to wonder if that will change with time. John Tavares is the real deal and the Islanders should be very good in a few years. I don't know how the NHL can pass them by, especially if they are as good -- if not better -- than the Rangers.

The Winter Classic has two challenges as time goes by. The first is Gary Bettman's worst nightmare. You know there will be a game canceled at some point because of flukey warm weather. A lot of time and money is put into these Winter Classics. The league has been fortunate so far. But you do understand that all it takes is a 50-degree day for the NHL to have a ton of egg on its face, right? It could happen.

The league is also going to have to get creative with locations. I know Buffalo worked nicely, but when you go from Wrigley to Fenway to maybe SkyDome (whatever it's called now, it will work because it's Toronto) and Yankee Stadium, you know outsiders will say the event "jumped the shark" when it's played at some uninspiring stadium with no history. Although there was an exhibition game in Vegas in 1991, the league is limited because I don't see cities like LA, Phoenix and Tampa Bay hosting an outdoor game.

Here's the next step for the Winter Classic: not a stadium, but a landmark -- Central Park. It could happen.

Kevin Schultz: I'd agree on your points about the venue. They're going to have to try and keep it interesting somehow, although Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo isn't exactly some historical landmark. That might mean going to Beaver Stadium in State College, PA -- a gigantic college venue -- or like you said something really outside the box like Central Park, although I can't see them putting a 60,000 seat temporary stadium there.

As for the ice melting, I don't think it's that serious of a situation. Obviously, the league would do well to keep the game as close as possible to the 49th parallel, but these have been day games so far. I think as far as a heat wave canceling the game goes, it might only have to be postponed a few hours until the sun goes down and the temperature drops. That would certainly screw things up a lot -- I don't think NBC would like having to do that one bit -- but it wouldn't be the end of the world, especially when it gets dark so early this time of year.
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