January 6, 2008

Winter Classic is No Classic

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On New Year’s Day, for the first time in a long time, everybody seemed to be talking about hockey. The college football bowl games have been incredibly boring, everyone is sick of Roger Clemens, and no can get excited about a Charlotte Bobcats-Atlanta Hawks NBA matchup. Therefore, on Jan. 1, the NHL presented the “Winter Classic,” an outdoor game at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., (the normal home of the Buffalo Bills) between the Buffalo Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Financially, the game was a big coup for the NHL. The contest was the highest rated regular-season NHL game in over a decade, with a bigger audience than last year’s Stanley Cup Finals. The stadium was full with Sabres fans who drank so much Genny Light that they didn’t feel the cold. In addition, media outlets who normally only talk about hockey when the Islanders’ Chris Simon commits a crime on the ice talked about the game ad nauseam. In general, most members of the media and the NHL were ecstatic about the event, signaling a possible turnaround in the league’s dismal popularity, which has been hovering somewhere slightly above rodeo and jai alai. Many people want to build on the game’s success by holding an outdoor matchup every year.

Call me a cynic, but I did not enjoy the game. Anyone who has watched a hockey game in their lives could easily see that the game was played in sub-par conditions. As snow cascaded onto the ice, it made passing impossible. Players had trouble seeing the puck, clearing it was near impossible, and no one could get a clean shot off. There were also holes on the ice, which were a serious injury hazard. To make matters worse, the NHL decided to dress the two teams in throwback uniforms. The Sabres’ 1990s outfits weren’t that bad, but the Penguins’ 1970s jerseys looked garish in powder blue, which is not even one of the team’s current colors.

I think the NHL needs to find better ways to market itself without resorting to gimmicks like this. Could you imagine a league like the NBA doing something like this? People would laugh if the Knicks and Nets played in the rain at Giants Stadium. The NHL, on the other hand, has put itself in a position where it has to resort to games like this. The league decided to put its games on the Vs. network, holds its draft on a Friday night and has an agreement with NBC where the network cut away from the Eastern Conference Finals last year for the Preakness pregame show. And after missing an entire season due to the lockout, it is no wonder that the NHL has no fans.

The league thinks that the Winter Classic will attract new fans to hockey and bring the NHL out of the doldrums. It held the game in one of the best hockey markets, Buffalo. The game included Sidney Crosby, the only NHL player who is even a household name in cities where there hasn’t been ice in twenty years.

In my opinion, though, I don’t think the Winter Classic will convert anyone. The problems with the league are so deep that resorting to such a gimmick will not cause anyone to turn off the NFL and watch a random regular season game between the Panthers and the Coyotes. Furthermore, to the NHL’s chagrin, Crosby only plays on only one of the 30 teams. There are a myriad of stars in the league, but most of the general public has no idea who Vincent Lecavalier, Dany Heatley, Ilya Kovalchuk or Jarome Iginla is. If the league only markets Crosby, why would the average fan even turn on an Ottawa-Detroit game? Therefore, all the Winter Classic accomplished was to provide poor hockey, ugly uniforms and a potential for injury.