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When Will The NHL Give Us A Truly Unique Outdoor Experience?

Photo by Michael Dwyer, AP

The oversaturation of big-market teams is doing the sport of hockey no favors.

The news broke unexpectedly on November 7: the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins are going to face off at the University of Notre Dame on January 1, 2019 for that year’s NHL Winter Classic.

The Winter Classic is a yearly event in which two NHL teams face off in an outdoor arena on or near New Year’s Day. This will be the third Winter Classic for the Bruins, and the fourth for the Blackhawks. The Bruins participated in the 2010 and 2016 Winter Classics, beating the Philadelphia Flyers in the former and losing to the Montreal Canadiens in the latter. The Blackhawks have had less luck outdoors, losing to the Detroit Red Wings in 2009, Washington Capitals in 2015 and St. Louis Blues in 2017.  

Besides the Winter Classic, the NHL also hosts Stadium Series, which are similar to the Winter Classics but do not take place in early January, and Heritage Classics, which feature exclusively Canadian teams in Canadian stadiums.

Meanwhile, the Centennial Classic and NHL 100 Classic are two special outdoor games to celebrate a century of NHL hockey. The former was a 5-4 overtime win for the hometown Toronto Maple Leafs over Detroit on January 1, 2017, and the latter will be played between the Ottawa Senators and Montreal on December 16, 2017. 

Since 2008, there have been 25 outdoor NHL games either played or announced. The Detroit Red Wings, the New York Rangers, and the Pittsburgh Penguins have been involved with four apiece. Besides Boston, Toronto, Montreal, Washington and Philadelphia have all participated or will participate in three. The Blackhawks, with the addition of two Stadium Series, lead the pack with six outdoor appearances. 

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(The Blackhawks have won just 1 of their 5 outdoor games so far; photo by Brian Kersey, Getty Images)

Adding this all up, these nine franchises account for 33 of the 50 teams to play outside since the league made such games regular occurrences. The first Heritage Classic, which took place in 2003, also featured Montreal, though that was billed as a one-time event and only expanded to a semi-annual status eight years later. 

Eight teams (Florida, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Nashville, Dallas, Columbus, Arizona and Vegas) have yet to participate in a single outdoor game. The league is sticking to their guns by having historical, big-market teams compete in their highly-advertised outdoor extravaganzas, but experimenting with other locations or matchups would do nothing but grow the game in those areas. 

A Florida Panthers-Tampa Bay Lightning game could be marketed as a cross-state battle for dominance. The Minnesota Wild, who’ve played once in a Stadium Series, could host the Dallas Stars, who were known as the Minnesota North Stars until they relocated in 1993. The Columbus Blue Jackets have been enjoying success in recent seasons, and are currently poised to make the playoffs for the second year in a row. The NHL could reward their efforts with an outdoor game, even if they have to throw in a big-market rival like Detroit or Pittsburgh to make the idea work.

(The 2019 Winter Classic is set to be a rematch of the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals)

Certain teams like the Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes and Arizona Coyotes are struggling in both attendance numbers and the win column. Providing them a larger stage might give them extra motivation to perform well, and if advertised correctly, an outdoor game with one of these teams could net thousands of new fans who might otherwise never go to a hockey game.

Other teams are, at the very least, getting some exposure on an international stage. The Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks played in Shanghai and Beijing for two preseason tilts during the NHL China Games, and more recently, the Senators and Colorado Avalanche played a back-to-back in Stockholm, Sweden for the NHL Global Series. Still, Los Angeles and Vancouver are close in terms of time zones to China, and Ottawa and Colorado were picked because of an abundance of Swedish players on both teams. 

The 2017 Winter Classic was the least-watched in the history of the event. Perhaps, though, such ratings were due to the Centennial Classic being held the day before, or maybe even just apathy towards the Chicago Blackhawks. The ratings for the 2018 event should show whether it’s truly in decline or not, considering the participants, the Rangers and Buffalo Sabres, haven’t played outside since 2014 and 2008, respectively.

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(Will the Rangers and Sabres revitalize the Winter Classic in 2018?)

One interesting thing to note is that the Blackhawks and Bruins will be playing in a state without any NHL teams. The Vegas Golden Knights staged a bus tour to Utah, Montana and Idaho in August in an attempt to grow the game and create fans in those states. With luck, this endeavor of having hockey’s biggest outdoor game be played in the Hoosier State might have the same effect.

The NHL wants to have its marquee matchups feature teams all but guaranteed to make money, and that’s understandable. But it certainly would only boost the awareness of some of their smaller-market teams if they took a risk and focused on marketing different teams. The teams that lost each of the last three Stanley Cups (Tampa Bay, San Jose and Nashville) have a combined one outside appearance. If fans supported them throughout those playoffs runs, they’d probably be ecstatic to see the teams play at a football or baseball stadium.

Furthermore, these teams have storied histories and memorable players. The NHL needs to realize that it isn’t the Original Six era anymore; they have thirty-one teams to choose from, and twenty-eight metropolitan locations to hold these types of big events. 

They’ve added a team in Las Vegas and they’ve played games across the globe, but the league seems unwilling to risk showing small-market franchises on the big stage. Hopefully that will change because the fans of those teams deserve to know that the league values them, and all hockey fans deserve to see something new.

Edited by Kat Johansen, Vincent Choy.

How many outdoor games were held during the 2016-17 NHL season?
Created 11/10/17
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