By Jim Kelley
January 03, 2008

A few thoughts before putting the Winter Classic to rest, hopefully for a couple of years at least:

Item One: Everyone associated with the outdoor game in a suburb of Buffalo is positively giddy about the overnight television ratings which came in at a 2.6 rating and a 5 share. By NHL standards -- and this is a league that in recent years had one of their championship games tie for the lowest primetime rating in the history of TV -- that is a fabulous number, well above the usual 1.0 the league averaged on the networks.

But when you look hard at the numbers, the two biggest markets for the NHL were Buffalo and Pittsburgh, the two cities who had teams playing in the game. It also did well in a few pockets where hockey is respected. St. Louis, an NHL city, had a 3.3 and a 5 share. Providence, a solid American Hockey League market, did a 3/5. The Classic even scored well in some non-hockey markets, Las Vegas being the surprise city with a 6 share. But Detroit, often the TV market for hockey in the US, went football to follow the fortunes of Michigan in a bowl game with Florida. The game also didn't score in the big three -- New York, Chicago and Los Angeles -- and it didn't get a top 10 market reading in Philadelphia or Dallas, either, and those are all NHL cities.

There are several messages in that. One is that hockey is what it always is: a sport that appeals to followers and does well mostly where it is truly embraced and not up against any real competition. The fact that it was well-received in some non-traditional markets is more an indication that some people watched just because it was a curiosity. Las Vegas tuned in big. One suspects that's because Vegas has only a college basketball team and the UNLV Runnin' Rebels weren't a factor on New Year's Day.

I would argue that people in Vegas and a lot of other American cities would tune in to watch the Daytona 500 if they opted to run it on ice and in a snowstorm. I would, and one simply can't discount the novelty factor.

The NHL has looked at its TV numbers for years and knows what they got. The outdoor game drew some viewers because it was different, a novelty or a curiosity or -- if you're a cruel person -- a freak show, but the league knows that a regular-season game involving any two of its best teams never gets a number like it got on New Year's Day, and that's not likely to change.

Item two: No NHL bosses showed up for a post-Classic media conference. I think that's wrong, but I'll give them credit for knowing there would simply be too many questions about bad. Why would they let that take away from a mostly successful event?

Still, Commissioner Gary Bettman did issue a statement complimenting all parties involved and stating that the event was "a memorable and outstanding afternoon." He also said the event "conquered significant challenges and achieved a superbly successful event" and given the response from the fans and inquires the league was getting from other clubs, another outdoor game would be something that the league will look at doing in the future.

True, true and true. Understand this: there was a message in that statement. The NHL now has two outdoor games under its belt and it pulled them off despite adverse conditions. In Edmonton, it was near 30 below zero, so cold you could argue that people who sat in the stands for both the old timers' game and the regular season contest between the Oilers and Canadiens were at risk. In Buffalo, it was snowy and windy and the ice had serious problems. Short of a blizzard, however, that's about as bad as it gets in regard to winter weather extremes. The league managed to get both games in and no one was hurt because of the weather. That's no small accomplishment.

The Buffalo News speculated that Bettman didn't take a bow because of the faulty ice conditions. A columnist there wondered if that was because Bettman himself might have pulled the plug on resurfacing the ice prior to the shootout because TV would have run out of time had the game gone much longer. Bettman, mindful of the embarrassment the NHL suffered when NBC pulled out of an undecided playoff game before OT to go to a scheduled feature on the Preakness Stakes, surely didn't want to have this game go off the air prior to its conclusion.

The News cited "no comments" from the Sabres about the lack of clean ice in the shootout that ultimately decided the game. The Bettman theory is interesting theory and will get legs in Buffalo, a city still smarting from Brett Hull's Stanley Cup-clinching goal with his foot in the crease, something that had been disallowed in every game that season. However, upon further review, the theory doesn't hold up.

For one thing, an NHL media release put out before the game stated clearly that "If weather conditions permit, the shootout will be conducted at Ralph Wilson Stadium immediately after regulation play has been stopped." That is a slight variation of the usual ice-scraping procedures (one pass down the center of the ice by the Zamboni), but the release stated that all weather-related game determinations will be "within the sole discretion of the Commissioner" with input from the necessary hockey people.

It should also be noted that Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell was at the boards for the entire game and it was he who ordered numerous unscheduled scrapes of the ice during the game. He also ordered one at the end of regulation and before the five-minute OT, something that is not the norm but was dictated by conditions. He also had some men out to clear the ice with shovels before the start of the shootout, but the teams opted to play that portion of the game in the opposite end.

The truth is that leading up to the game and during it, the NHL did everything humanly possible to make conditions equal for both sides. It kept both teams informed and involved in the decision-making process. In addition, it's known that NBC was prepared to go as late as 6 pm to accommodate the event, so the TV conspiracy theory is simply not sustainable.

It might have been better if the NHL had addressed all that immediately after the game, but the fact that they didn't doesn't make it any less true.

Item three: I've delivered my share of criticism about the NHL over the past year and, naturally, they've deserved every word of it, but I can't help thinking there is sometimes a double standard in sports journalism about it and other pro sports leagues.

People die in NASCAR events and there is seldom a word of protest, let alone a media clamor for safer tracks. The football field in Pittsburgh was an absolute disgrace for a recent NFL game involving the Steelers and the Miami Dolphins. One could argue that it contributed directly to a season-ending injury to Miami running back Ricky Williams (torn pectoral muscle when he slipped on soggy turf and was stepped on while face down in the mud).

I understand that bad weather is "part of the game" in the NFL, but re-sodding the field and then not doing enough to keep it from literally floating away during a monsoon-like rain storm is not an act of weather. It's an act of man.

Conditions, by any standard (not the least would be putting players at unreasonable risk). were clearly unsuitable for play. But the league that did not suspend play for the Sunday after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and, more recently, after Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor was killed in his own home, apparently didn't see the need for restraint and certainly didn't show any for its players well-being while allowing that Pittsburgh-Miami game to take place. The NFL got a pass, much the same as when it conducted a behind-closed-doors investigation of the cheating scandal involving the New England Patriots.

The NHL has loads of warts as a business and more than a few with regard to its product, but it did not put its players at inordinate risk in the outdoor game. It wasn't well-played. and adverse conditions may have had an effect, but in the big picture, the NHL took a chance and gave people a spectacle they enjoyed. Even the players acknowledged that though conditions were different and difficult, they were a challenge they were able to overcome and the same for both teams. The NHL deserves some credit.

Item four: Not that there's anything wrong with this, but in addition to a spiked TV rating, a sold-out stadium, a genuine media buzz, and general kudos for a job well done, all parties made some real money. Sources tell that merchandise sales on game day may have topped $1 million and that the sales should ripple on for weeks, given some of the product lines and retro sweaters that were on display.

In addition, the gross for the event could hit close to $5 million. Expenses were high with regard to ice-making and facilities (it cost nearly $250,000 just to rent and service the stadium for that one game), but the Sabres, Penguins, NHL and even the Buffalo Bills are expected to clear a profit. THat's reason enough to have other NHL cities clamoring for a similar event.

That's a dangerous temptation because NHL owners and network TV tend to milk a successful cash cow until it runs dry. Outdoor games are fun and entertaining in no small part because they are rare. Both the NHL and NBC should keep that in mind before rushing to do another one.

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