NEW YORK — A day after the NHL enjoyed the Hollywood treatment, bringing outdoor hockey to southern California, it moved cross country to the less cooperative climate of New York City, the unofficial 2014 home of the polar vortex. In freezing temperatures, though, the Rangers and Devils were actually delayed for an hour because of bright sunshine (go figure), only to play through snow showers throughout the second period at Yankee Stadium. The temperatures—24.9 degrees at the drop of the puck—were frigid all day, and the hockey was, well, what anybody would come to expect from these games.
"It's not playoff hockey, put it that way," said Devils winger Jaromir Jagr, who has now played outdoors five times (the 2012 Winter Classic with Philadelphia, as well as three outdoor KHL All-Star games). "You want to play the best hockey you can play, but outside, there's wind. You're cold, so your speed is not the same. It's tough to hit anybody. You have to be careful because the ice is not exactly the way that you want it to be. You cannot stick-handle it to anybody because the ice is not good, so you have to play very simple. There's not going to be many pretty plays."
Indeed for the Devils, after scoring three first-period goals, their play on the ice got ugly. Giving up more odd-man rushes in one game than they might surrender in a week, they let a 3-1 lead get away from them fast, and through the flurries, the Rangers mounted a ferocious comeback, scoring six unanswered goals on their way to a 7-3 win.
"We were lucky," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "I don't know for whatever reason this afternoon, we were fortunate to catch them a couple times ... to make the play that led to those transitions. Some days it works like that. Some other days it doesn't."
And herein lies the problem with games like these. There are so many unknown factors that sit outside the control of the players and the coaches. So while some wondered if this year's glut of outdoor games might dilute the special quality of these spectacles, I wonder if the spectacle is really worth the diluted hockey.
For one game each season, maybe even for two, sure, it's worth it. The Winter Classic generates huge interest, massive profits, and holds some tradition, but when all is said and done about this Stadium Series, the NHL will have put on six outdoor games this season—six occasions to talk about weather and wind and a whole manner of things that shouldn't have any bearing on regular season hockey. Six occasions to watch relatively subpar hockey games.
While the Winter Classic has at least a sliver of tradition and the game in Los Angeles on Saturday night came with the novelty of California weather, the Yankee Stadium game on Sunday afternoon, I thought, lacked charm. Or perhaps, it lacked significance.
It was a show for the sake of a show—albeit one that was memorable and at times spectacular. As the flurries began to fall in the second period, the players tried not to look up or be distracted by the 50,105 bundled bodies cheering from the sold-out stands. As they ambled out of the dugouts to lines of bagpipers and saw fireworks shoot to the sky during the national anthem, they couldn't help but take in the spectacle.
"The whole atmosphere of this event—the mixed fans in the building, the aura of playing in Yankee Stadium—the whole thing was unbelievable. Besides the hockey game," said Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, who let in six goals on 21 shots, before ceding the crease to backup Cory Schneider in the third period. Brodeur also remarked about the poor quality of the ice, calling it "the worst ice I've ever played hockey on." It got worse as the game progressed, he said, and Vigneault concurred.
"You'd think that a day like this ... that you're talking about ideal conditions," the Rangers coach said. "You should be able to get ice, and they had issues with the ice. I was surprised about that."
Ice quality is an important detail, if only to remember that no matter how much fun these games are for players and fans, how many fireworks go off and musical acts play, how much limited edition gear is sold, the league really shouldn't sacrifice the quality of the game for the pageantry of the show.