By Stu Hackel
Why is the Winter Classic such a huge success for the National Hockey League and why is it likely to continue being so? Let me count the ways:
First, this event becomes an oversized demonstration of devotion to the home team during the holiday season of celebration -- and everybody likes a celebration. If you are a fan of the Flyers, you wanted to be in the Phillies' ballpark for this game.
It obviously doesn't matter that you might be one of those folks in attendance who couldn't actually see the game except by watching it on the giant video screen. And you don't care how much it cost you to not be able to see the game. You just wanted to be there to share your passion for the team with other members of your Orange Army tribe -- three times as many as for a regular indoor game. Plus, you want to be there wearing your Orange Army tribal garb -- the newer the better; and the NHL kindly produces a brand new sweater design for each team that plays in these games for you to snap up at another healthy price.
Hockey fans are either well-heeled or emotionally invested enough to prevent money from being an obstacle. They come to have fun, to commune with their clan and with nature, while hoping to see a triumph over their enemies. All the objections, valid or not, offered up by skeptics -- that the setting (including the fake snow that covers the field) might be artificial, that too much is made of a regular season game, that the ice is substandard, that many spectators can't see the action -- didn't matter at all to the Orange Army or the hated visitors' fans in red, white and blue. And any group of fans from any NHL city would almost certainly feel the same way.
Another critical element in the Winter Classic's success is the right match-up and we wrote about that last week. One long-time Flyers fan we spoke with yesterday at the game, a guy who splits a season package with members of his family and travels three hours each way from Harrisburg, PA, to attend games, articulated it well. Asked why he thought Flyers fans were so pumped for the Winter Classic, he simply replied, "It's the Rangers." No other foe, except the Penguins, would have aroused the home fans in Philly. He doubted the game would even have been sold out had the Capitals had been the opponent.
Let's not forget there are elements of surprise that are mostly provided by the elements. The players are under the sky, not a roof, and the uncertainty of what nature might bring adds to the unpredictability of a typical game. Indoors, the NHL is a three-ring circus under normal circumstances, but an outdoor match in a huge stadium with all the revelry becomes a feast for the senses. Add the sights of the huge crowd extending their New Year's Day party, the carnival-style merchandise, the games booths around the stadium, the decorations, the kids playing on the mini-rink in front of the main sheet of ice, the bright sunshine or cold air or snow flurries, a few big-name music acts, a tribute to the team's history during an intermission, and the fireworks after the final buzzer, plus a beer or two and you're approaching sensory overload. Ours is an age of overstimulation and this event fits right in.
The uniqueness of the setting not only attracts fans in larger numbers but non-fans, too. People who don't normally follow hockey continue to be curious about the Winter Classic -- and that's exactly what the NHL wants. The league knows its next step in the growth of its business in the United States is to attract more casual fans and to somehow inject hockey more into the mainstream of sports discussion in this country. The Winter Classic helps do that.
We've gone through all of this and haven't even touched on the game itself yet. We registered our immediate impressions Monday from Philadelphia as we live-blogged (and we had all sorts of technical issues that we've now fixed). To sum up, the Flyers dominated the second period, but the Rangers survived, thanks to goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Philly worked the boards, where their size advantage won lots of puck battles, and jumped to a 2-0 lead. Not 30 seconds after the Flyers' second goal, the Rangers cut the lead on a huge tally by Mike Rupp, considering how one-sided the play had been against New York.
The Rangers reversed the flow of play in the third period with two quick goals, including a second by Rupp that Flyers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky should not have allowed, prompting our SI colleague Brian Cazeneuve to recall the amazing five-minute performance by a 66-year-old netminder in Saturday's Alumni Game and say, "The Flyers’ best goalie this weekend was probably Bernie Parent.”
New York then contained Philly by not allowing the Flyers to break out of their zone. The Flyers had problems mounting a pushback. This was one of those times when it could have been expected that their fans would vocally get behind them. We noted on the blog that the fans -- while having a great time -- couldn't muster the kind of noise that often can lift a team. The lack of arena intimacy and the absence of a roof to contain the sound rendered every attempt at a stadium-wide "Let's Go Flyers" chant nearly impotent. When the Flyers finally did get going near the period's end, Lundqvist bailed the Rangers out again.
After the game, a reporter asked Flyers coach Peter Laviolette if he could explain why four of the five Winter Classics have been won by the visitors. He really couldn't answer and maybe it's just a fluke. But you have to wonder if the crowd aspect of home ice advantage is neutralized in the great outdoors. It's something to ponder.
Like every other caveat raised about the Winter Classic, that concern matters very little. The fans love it, the players love it, the team execs love it, NBC loves it (and the network gave the NHL two extra hours of pregame programming after the start time was pushed back to 3 PM), and we'll probably learn today that the TV audience again loved it. It was a Philly love-in. Even if the Orange Army didn't love the outcome.