Since that magical date, Jan. 1, 2008, there has been a yearly NHL Winter Classic, held outdoors in a stadium not meant for hockey, with the tremendous fanfare that the NHL has been clamoring for since Gary Bettman became commissioner. Now, the Winter Classic has lost its luster, and has become rather droll.
First was the Heritage Classic, back in 2003, a random game in the Albertan wilderness between the Montreal Canadiens and the Edmonton Oilers in Edmonton’s CFL stadium. Sure, there was an exhibition outdoor game that preceded it, a matchup between the Kings and Rangers outside Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas in 1991, but who counts that? It’s Las Vegas! Five years after the Heritage Classic was the Winter Classic, Pittsburgh at Buffalo in Ralph Wilson Stadium. The ‘Ice Bowl’, as many called it due to its New Year’s Day setting among college football bowls, drew the largest crowd in NHL history, more publicity than it could have possibly imagined, and the perfect ending: Sidney Crosby, league posterboy, winning in a shootout.
The league knew it had something incredibly special, and so it knew they had to milk this cash cow for all it was worth. Everybody wanted a Winter Classic, the Canadian teams screamed for the game to return to the homeland, every market with a baseball stadium wanted it. The NHL thought long and hard, and though it toyed with the ideas of multiple outdoor games, as many outside of hockey traditionalism cried for, but settled on the next best thing: Detroit at Chicago inside Wrigley Field.
Could you ask for a better matchup? The league’s best team, which dominated recent years and won a Stanley Cup, against the youthful rebirth of the Chicago Blackhawks, two Original Six teams, and one better: the two teams that had played each other the most, over 700 times in the past 80 years.
The hype was intense, the setting sublime, and even the jerseys were incredible for their charm. But the game wasn’t all that good. 6-4, with Chicago getting a late goal, even the commentators seemed bored in the 3rd period as they rambled about topics unrelated to the game on the ice. Combine that with the smaller crowd, obvious for a baseball stadium, and it just lacked some of its luster as the game came to its end.
This year, the league chose the Flyers and the Bruins at Fenway Park. Fenway Park! The ballpark screams tradition! Go there, and just be quiet for a moment, and you can hear the ghosts of baseball’s past right there. No matter how disheveled the place has become, it is still so beloved because of what it has been through. It’s the perfect place for a Winter Classic!
… But where is all the hype? Last year at this time, nobody could stop talking about the Winter Classic. Every other hockey fan’s word was about Detroit, Chicago, or Wrigley. This year, you hear none of that. It’s rather disappointing, actually.
The NHL has done what every traditionalist hockey fan has feared: it lost the luster. The Winter Classic is just old hat now.
There was a rather small but loud minority around the fringe of the hockey world yelling to take a break before this becomes old. I said it myself on The Hockey Week in Review on LakerTV many times, and we are revisiting this issue this week, so look for the show on channel 19.
If the game is held every year, it’ll become as uncared about as the All-Star Game, where the pros are trying to get out of it, only those with Versus can watch it, and nobody really cares. At one time, the All-Star Game was the biggest event next to the Stanley Cup itself!
The NHL needs to implement a plan similar to this, have two Winter Classics every five years. Have one in the Eastern Conference, one in the Western Conference, and then have a three year hiatus. That way, you get the publicity of the novelty, ride that wave of excitement to the next year, and then put it away so it stays fresh and new.
The NHL needs to do something, or else we’re going to be having Anaheim at Florida outside of the Disney Castle, and who really wants that?