Thursday, 16 March 2017

The Charm of the Great Outdoors

In 2003, the NHL took things outdoors to celebrate two of their most successful franchises, the Montréal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers. The game wasn't particularly promoted, the jerseys used in the game weren't sold in stores but it wasn't a secret. Images of Wayne Gretzky and Jose Theodore red in the face and frostbitten at Commonwealth Stadium in front of 57'000 adoring fans are written into hockey history.

Photo from
Similarly, images of Sidney Crosby scoring the shootout winner on Ryan Miller at Ralph Wilson Stadium or the Leafs and Red Wings playing at The Big House in front of 100k fans wearing red and blue in a snow storm have that calming effect of outdoor hockey. That being said, the other Winter Classics, Heritage Classics and Stadium Series, don't quite have that same effect. Not to say they're not successful, but as the years go on it seems outdoor games get lost to time, particularly the Stadium Series. Should the NHL scale back its outdoor games?

First let's think of what an outdoor game needs to be successful. Since this is one game there needs to be a game where there's a rivalry. Pinning LA and San Jose against each other is a good example of this. The two teams have plenty of history together, particularly in the playoffs, and being in the same division means the game will have at least some meaning. There are times this isn't the case. The 2016 Stadium Series game in Colorado, while not a failure, was better known for its alumni game that featured players from a time when a Colorado v. Detroit series was the best hockey out there, not an 8th seed playoff team and a bottom 10 rebuilding team. Sometimes things are out of the team's hands. The 2016 Winter Classic pinned Boston and Montréal together, one of hockey's greatest rivalries in an original 6 divisional match up with more playoff history than any two teams wasn't as successful as it could have been. Why was this? Montréal had lost Carey Price to injury for the season and was in turmoil on the way to a forgettable season.

Second the location needs to be iconic. Putting a game in any old outdoor stadium won't do, there needs to be some sort of provenance to where the game is being held. Breaking in a relatively and hyped up stadium like what Winnipeg did in the 2016 Heritage Classic or the Canucks did in the 2014 Heritage Classic at BC Place are examples of this. Places like the Big House, Heinz Field, Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, Soldier Field or Levi's Stadium host iconic teams regularly and are sites of sports history; thus they themselves act as advertisement for the game. Putting the game at the closest football/baseball stadium isn't really good enough unless the rivalry can carry the weight.

Photo from
How many outdoor games should there be in a year? In 2003-04, there was one, from 2008-2013 there was one aside from in 2010/11 when Calgary hosted Montréal in only the second ever Heritage Classic. In 2013/14 there was a Winter Classic (Detroit), Heritage Classic (Vancouver) and 4 Stadium Series games in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. That's 6 outdoor games. Two of these games contained all non-playoff teams (New York Islanders V. New Jersey Devils and Ottawa Senators V. Vancouver Canucks). New Jersey refused to wear specialty jerseys for the game, citing the chrome logos as stupid and opting for their traditional inaugural jerseys. This was the turning point year for the outdoor game as a concept.

The 2015 Winter Classic in Washington was doomed to not be as good as the 2014 game, even though it objectively contained better teams. Chicago wore very similar jerseys to what they wore regularly on the road and there was a nearly 60k drop in attendance. The 2015 Stadium Series game two non playoff teams as the California teams suffered an off year outside of Anaheim that largely proved to be pointless, despite it being another outdoor game in California, something that was once unheard of until 2013/14

2015-16 brought on another disappointing game, though attendance was a little better at ~67K the lack of Price proved to be enough to deter tv viewers. On top of this the two Stadium Series games proved to be relative duds, with the Wild blowing out the Blackhawks in Minnesota and a meaningless game in Colorado; both games drew 50k fans and while the later game proved to be entertaining, there was little hype regarding either.

Finally in 2016-17, we've had 4 games outside. The Winter Classic could be considered the dud of the 4, bringing in lower tv ratings than the Boston Montréal game, ~46 fans at the game and proving to be largely forgettable. The Stadium Series game brought the two Keystone state teams together for the first time outside, and it brought out ~67k fans despite Philadelphia suffering through a mediocre season. The Centennial Classic in a rematch of the 2014 Winter Classic had only 40k fans at the game, but was played in at BMO field, which is maximum capacity. Furthermore it served as the launching point for the NHL's 100th anniversary and was an entertaining game and well watched at least here in Canada. The Heritage Classic had the same effect, though instead of launching the 100th anniversary, the game was a dream come true for Winnipeg hockey fans despite the game being a 3-0 shutout.

The 2018 Winter Classic is said to be played at Citi Field with the Rangers hosting the Sabres. A game that if played today would feature a top 5 team in the Eastern Conference versus a bottom 5, a 22 point difference between the two as of March 17th 2k17. Of course the Sabres are expected to be a playoff team in 2017-18 after years of mediocrity/rebuilding, but still, who is really asking for a game between these two? Both teams have played outdoors, the Rangers as recent as 2014. Citi Field is the home of the Mets, a team that goes from NL Champs to Wild Card losers and notorious for inconstancy. The field itself is known for replacing Shea Stadium where the Beatles played in 1965 to open their North American tour and more recently being in a dump. I can almost guarantee the response to this game outside of Rangers/Sabres fan bases and jersey collectors will be apathy.

Similar things can be said about the proposed 2nd outdoor game (likely the other Centennial Classic) between Ottawa and Montréal, though it will likely be very successful in Canada with little fanfare in America outside of the jersey community.

How can the NHL fix the outdoor game? Focus on the teams that are playing! At this point, almost every team has played at least one outdoor game (Vegas, Arizona, Columbus, Dallas, Carolina, Florida and Tampa Bay) and almost all of those teams outside Columbus are on the outside looking in of the playoffs. On top of that southern teams will likely have to play their outdoor games on the road, which means the NHL will have to chose a rival for them to play against that people will watch (i.e.: Dallas plays Buffalo, Carolina plays Toronto, Tampa Bay plays Calgary/Pittsburgh etc.) In short, we're past the time where we need to think about every team getting one game, and should more be focused on what games will people watch.

We can dream
You can stick any has been band in an intermission/intro concert, and put them in any number of baseball/football stadiums until NCAA stadiums have to be used, but the people won't watch the game on tv for that, stadium appeal only really works for fans in the area or willing/wanting to make the trip. If it's a Pittsburgh/Washington game, people will watch. If it's a Chicago/Detroit game, people will watch. If it's Islanders/Oilers game, people will watch. If it's Toronto/Montréal, people will really watch. Things could change, and when teams are successful and drawing crowds they should be rewarded with an outdoor game; Columbus/Minnesota are a good example of that. Baring factors like a star being injured or an unexpected crappy season (which will happen and those can be written up to bad luck), the NHL can nearly guarantee success every game if they follow this.

Oh and give Chicago a break, they've been outside in 2009, 14, 15, 16 and 17....they're running out of jerseys!