Nearly every NHL game ever played has taken place in a hockey arena, which makes the annual Winter Classic outdoor game such a big deal. Ever since the league first held the Winter Classic in 2008 (five years after staging an outdoor game in Edmonton) between Pittsburgh and Buffalo, the New Year’s Day event has been a ratings and headline grabber.
This year’s game will take place on January 2 (avoiding a conflict with NFL games on 1/1) at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park, home of the baseball Phillies. The Philadelphia Flyers will host the New York Rangers in a battle of Atlantic Division rivals.
The idea is to take the sport back to its roots, when it was played on frozen ponds. Of course, those ponds weren’t located in football or baseball stadiums filled with thousands of spectators. But the setting appeals to players, many of whom grew up playing on backyard rinks or neighborhood ponds, and fans. It’s got that old-school feel, like the baseball diamond in a cornfield in “Field of Dreams.” Sure, it’s gimmicky, plunked in the middle of an NHL season with teams battling for every point, but it works. The Winter Classic, aired on NBC and faring well against college football bowl games, has resonated with non-hockey fans who have tuned in to watch teams skate at classic baseball stadiums like Fenway Park or Wrigley Field.
The biggest risk, of course, is the weather. Even though the games have been played in cold-weather climes like Buffalo, Boston and Chicago, last year’s game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh was delayed by rain; the NHL pushed the start back until the evening but still experienced intermittent rain throughout the game. It can also be too cold, as was the case at the Heritage Classic in Calgary on Feb. 20; the game between the Flames and the Montreal Canadiens featured sub-zero wind chills, which required workers to flood the ice to prevent it from cracking.
Another concern is overdoing the outdoor game shtick. Last season was the first to feature two outdoor games, with the aforementioned Heritage Classic designed to appease Canadian fans, who had yet to see a team from the Great White North play in the Winter Classic. The whole idea started in 2003 with a Heritage Classic game between Edmonton and Montreal, which included an oldtimers game that featured former Oiler greats Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier suiting up against Montreal legends Guy Lafleur and other former Cup winners.
College hockey actually got the jump on the NHL with an outdoor game in 2001 between the University of Michigan and Michigan State University before more than 74,000 fans at Spartan Stadium. Since then, Ohio State and Wisconsin played at Lambeau Field in Green Bay and two games were timed with the Bruins-Flyers game at Fenway in 2010, a men’s game (Boston College vs. Boston University) and a women’s game (Northeastern vs. New Hampshire). This year, Fenway’s hosting three more outdoor games in January: New Hampshire vs. Maine, Vermont vs. Massachusetts-Amherst and Northeastern vs. Boston College.
So with all these outdoor games and the Winter Classic renewed through the NHL’s deal with NBC through 2021, will the idea of outdoor hockey lose its luster? Perhaps, but I think as long as it remains a relatively rare event (once or twice a year in the NHL, a few selected college games), fans will continue to buy tickets. These games aren’t cheap to stage, since a rink has to be built and maintained in a new location for each event. And I’m guessing the NHL doesn’t want to overdo it, given the fact it didn’t announce another Heritage Classic game in Canada this season despite plenty of demand. Another factor is the league doesn’t want outdoor games to overshadow good ol’ regular season indoor games, which make up the majority of its revenue.
As long the outdoor game concept is handled properly, hockey fans and players alike will welcome it for years to come.