By Stu Hackel
When it comes to comparing the NHL's two outdoor games, the Winter Classic and the Heritage Classic, the upcoming game in Calgary between the Canadiens and Flames is a second-class citizen to the New Year's Day event.
In the run-up to the Winter Classic, the NHL did all it could and more to promote the event, the teams, the players, the venue -- you name it. A search of the NHL's media website that archives press releases turns up about 45 documents promoting the Heinz Field event last month, and that doesn't count the seemingly infinite stories that appeared on NHL.com (which had a huge section dedicated to the event updated, it seemed, by the minute, including a blog and live webcam at the site), the NHL Network's non-stop hype and live coverage, the TV spots produced to run on NHL game telecasts, plus the HBO "24/7" series and all the attendant publicity that arose from it. It was a public relations and promotional triumph.
Now, here comes the Heritage Classic at McMahon Stadium in on February 20. A search reveals all of eight press releases on the NHL's media website. NHL.com has a page with 14 stories linked on it, one of them still in their feature box from last August on how much the Habs' Josh Gorges, who was declared out for the season almost a month ago, is looking forward to playing in the game.
And the NHL's big promotional push, which apparently began yesterday (you knew that, right?), seems to be a big 18-wheel trailer truck filled with the ice making equipment that is driving from Toronto to Calgary and stopping at points in between to give lucky Canadians the opportunity to see all the machinery that will be used to create the rink. Yowser!
That really says "hockey heritage," eh? Well, there will be fan giveaways and promotions at every stop along the way (get your Timbits now) and, according to the press release, "the opportunity to get an NHL photo taken at the Canadian Tire green screen." This seems to be the green screen; it's, well, a green screen in front of which one can have one's photo taken.
The afterthought nature of the NHL's limp promotional effort is compounded by a double indignity in the fact that this truck won't be motoring east to help promote the game in the town of one of the participating teams, although it doesn't seem as if they're missing much.
Regardless, that hasn't been overlooked in Montreal: "A sort-of national truck tour will give fans in five cities – none of them Montreal – a chance to talk about the game and get a look at the machinery that will build the outdoor rink," wrote Dave Stubbs on the Montreal Gazette's Habs Inside/Out blog. "Naturally, the tour begins today in the centre of the hockey universe and works its way west. Fitting, I guess, given that the title sponsorship of the game bears the name of the donut chain founded by a late Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman."
Versus has this somber, somewhat overwrought spot they've been running in the U.S:
It's fine to be reverential, but "the breath of our ancestors"? "The blood of our kind"? It's a good thing they put nets and a goal stick in there or it might have been mistaken as a sequel to this 70's classic:
It's not that the NHL is incapable of striking the right notes on certain occasions. The introduction at last week's All-Star Game in Raleigh, especially with the choose-up theme, was exceptional in taste and tone...
...with franchise favorites Ron Francis and Rod Brind'Amour perfect complements to the proceedings. But there's a nagging sense the Heritage Classic is a burden for the league, an obligation to the sport in its birthplace that won't bring them any tangible benefit in U.S. TV ratings, sponsorships or merchandise sales. Canada is a mature hockey market and the growth possibilities in the U.S. seems to inspire the league far more.
But the relative negligence is not just obvious, it doesn't serve the league's own interests. This is a cross-border business and there's much to gain by promoting a unique game like the one in Calgary -- not the least of which is improving the league's image. Anyone in any business knows that if you take your customers for granted, they may go elsewhere. Or turn on you. The hostility in Canada toward the NHL in the aftermath of the debacle caused by those who wanted to move the Coyotes to Hamilton can't have already been forgotten, can it?
Meanwhile, the big truck rolls on. It will be in Winnipeg (birthplace of Terry Sawchuk) on Feb. 5; in Regina (where Dick Irvin, Jr. grew up) on Feb. 6; in Saskatoon (where Gordie Howe was from) on Feb. 7; and Edmonton (Johnny Bucyk's hometown) on Feb. 8; before arriving in Calgary on Feb. 9.