By BEN HOROWITZ
Ever since the National Hockey League debuted the first Winter Classic in 2008 between the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins, the outdoor hockey events have been one smashing success after the next. The joy of witnessing hockey return to its outdoor roots has sold out some of North America’s most prestigious sports venues: Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, the Phillies’ Citizen’s Bank Park and, this year, the famed “big house” at University of Michigan.
The NHL’s ice gurus have increasingly mastered the art of creating a high-quality outdoor playing surface, such that the ice hardly diminishes the quality of play. All of the games have been exciting and close. In fact, a number of winners have had to be determined by shootouts, a tie-breaking contest designed with the fans in mind. In short, the NHL’s latest foray into outdoor games could not have gone any better.
Coming off the lock-out shortened season of 2013, the NHL needed something to regain the loyalty of fans. The lock-out was incredibly ill-timed. The NHL’s popularity was on the rise, with the Los Angeles Kings having completed a shockingly dominant turnaround to win the Stanley Cup. Even as a Devils fan, seeing my team win the Eastern Conference by beating the Rangers, only to fall short of the ultimate prize, I could not wait for the 2012-2013 season to start. Then greed reared its ugly head, and owners and players locked horns through the first four months of the season. When they finally realized they were losing more money by arguing than they would by actually compromising, the lockout ended. But many fans were already turned off.
And so, to win back the fans and elevate hockey’s popularity to record levels, the NHL turned to what fans had repeatedly shown they adore: outdoor hockey. This time, they would not be restricted to one Winter Classic on New Year’s Day. They would get the Coors Light Stadium Series, a slate of six outdoor contests — five in America and one in Canada. The series started off with a bang, with over 105,000 people packing into the Big House to watch the Red Wings and Maple Leafs square off.
The largest-ever crowd at a hockey game enjoyed an evenly matched contest, with the Maple Leafs ultimately prevailing. Just this past weekend, Los Angeles and New York fans packed Dodgers Stadium and Yankee Stadium for more outdoor fun. The actual games between the Rangers and Devils and the Kings and Ducks weren’t as exciting, but they both drew huge crowds to the famous baseball venues. And there is more to come: The Penguins and Blackhawks will square off at Soldier Field in the beginning of March in a match between two of the NHL’s best teams.
These outdoor games and the NHL’s general marketing strategy are certainly paying dividends. Recent polls have shown that as many people list professional hockey as their favorite sport as those that list professional basketball. Attendance at NHL games has surpassed attendance at NBA games. The upcoming winter Olympics present another major opportunity for growing world-wide interest in hockey. The men’s hockey tournament in the 2010 games was absolutely fantastic, capped by an epic U.S.-Canada contest for the gold. That final was the most watched gold medal game since the 1980 Miracle on Ice. With the NHL’s best heading to Sochi again this year, fans are in for another round of passionate hockey on the world’s biggest stage.
All in all, things are looking up for professional hockey. However, specifically with regard to the outdoor games, the NHL must be wary of overusing the concept. There are some downsides to the fan experience as well, such as the freezing temperatures, expensive tickets and often poor viewing angles from the stands. Part of what has driven the popularity of these events is the exotic factor — the idea that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see an outdoor game at these stadiums.
If the NHL continues to do a whole series of games on a yearly basis, it eventually will become less captivating. So while I am a huge fan of all these outdoor games, it is in the best interest of the NHL to restrict the number of games and alter the venues, in order to retain the element of originality in every event. That way, the outdoor hockey concept will continue to advance the popularity of hockey for years to come.