The weather may be harsh and Mother Nature may not be too nice with the ice, but it's hard to beat the atmosphere of an outdoor NHL game, no matter how often they're played. (Dave Sandford/Getty Images)
By Stu Hackel
If there was ever a compelling case for the NHL outdoor format to be expanded, it was made by yesterday's Heritage Classic game in Calgary. Once again, as in Edmonton for the league's inaugural non-roofed game eight years ago and in soggy Pittsburgh last month, fans braved harsh weather to celebrate the game they love. If you think that sort of response wouldn't be repeated in many other NHL markets, you don't know hockey fans.
For the first time, the NHL pulled off two outdoor games in one season and, even though it expended far less promotional energy for the Heritage Classic than it did for the Winter Classic, the second game didn't suffer any for it. That's because these games are local festivals of the sport. One does not dilute another's appeal or take away from its special nature.
This isn't a new thought. It was mentioned here after the game at Heinz Field on New Year's Day, but it was apparent 25 months ago, after the Red Wings-Blackhawks game at Wrigley Field in Chicago that outdoor games were something to be spread around and not hoarded. The 2009 Winter Classic made it clear, and we wrote afterward that "If this one game merely rotates around the NHL on a yearly basis, lots of fans -- and players — will never have the chance to have the outdoor experience. Yes, it might diminish the New Year’s Day event, but there will always be something special about an NHL outdoor game on Jan. 1 amidst the college football bowl games with hung over fans glued to their flatscreens....
"Give the Wings and Hawks a rematch in Detroit’s Comerica Park. Let the Flyers and Penguins play annually outdoors in Pa., one year in Philly, the next year in Pitt, and maybe one year in the middle of the state. Why not? Why shouldn’t the Habs and Leafs or Leafs and Sens or Leafs and Sabres play an outdoor game every season? Or the Flames and Oilers have an annual Alberta Classic? These games could be annual matches that fans would anticipate from the day the schedule is released.
"There’s probably not a team or fan base in the N.H.L. that wouldn’t want to take part in an outdoor game. Don’t think fans of the Dallas Stars would travel north to Denver or Minnesota for an outdoor game against the Avs or Wild? Think again.
"The NHL seems very gung-ho on having lots of teams open their seasons in Europe, but it might do itself, the teams and the fans a favor by rethinking the sparse scheduling of outdoor games here in North America."
By now, the Winter Classic is such a strong event, it's highly doubtful that other games will diminish it. The way to insure that is to keep the scope of any other outdoor games local in nature. Don't put them on NBC, or whoever has the national network TV deal in the U.S. Build up their regional flavor. Only the New Year's Day game needs to be a mega-event in the U.S.; it's designed to be a broadcast network TV event anyway. Any other outdoor games can be staged for local audiences, geared to the crowd in attendance and televised locally and on national cable TV.
There will always be a demand for tickets. Honestly, if the fans in Calgary were willing to shell out over a $100 a ticket to brave the conditions (as Puck Daddy's Greg Wyshynski discovered)...
...and watch the game from vantage points like this...
...which certainly wasn't any worse than some of the angles that fans in Boston endured to watch the Flyers-Bruins game in 2010...
...and everyone still has a great time AND the event makes money (as NHL COO John Collins told The New York Times), how much downside is there, really?
If there is an inhibiting factor, it's the difficulty that the league's staff faces in executing these games. That's not a small consideration because one reason the outdoor games come off so well is because the NHL throws good people and lots of resources at them. Still, if the outdoor games are profitable, the league has the means and the incentive to add people and resources, and to schedule the games intelligently so they are not stretched too thin.
As for the criticism voiced by Ryan Lambert on Puck Daddy that the conditions in Calgary made for bad hockey and a "spectacle game" should not be staged so late in the season when the matches really matter, it should be clear by now -- as every NHL coach will tell you -- that in a league with this much parity, two points in November are just as important as two points in February. Every outdoor game is going to have the added uncertain element of what nature gives you, and that's what makes them fascinating. We said after the Pittsburgh game that it was a tribute to the great skills of the players that they could turn the rain-pooled surface into a credible NHL game and the same was true on Sunday in Calgary when the ice was chippy.
If the conditions favored the Flames (which Canadiens coach Jacques Martin and many of his players denied anyway), that was only because Calgary adjusted and the Habs didn't. The Canadiens kept trying to use their speed to make plays high in the zone while Calgary put pucks behind their defense, retrieved them and worked the boards well, which they might have done in the Saddledome as well, considering that Montreal's decimated defense corps now consists of one healthy 36-year-old veteran, two more coming off injuries, two journeymen who until lately had spent most of their time in the press box, and two rookies. And if the Canadiens' size worked to their disadvantage, that's been a problem for them indoors all season, not just at McMahon Stadium.
It was a special teams game anyway, with the Flames scoring twice on the power play (one a 5-on-3) and once shorthanded. As Brian Engblom pointed out frequently on Versus, Montreal's defense backed in regularly and gave the Flames too much room to operate. In fact, the Habs looked pretty disorganized in their own zone, never more so than on the turning point in the game: Anton Babchuk's shorthanded goal...
...where three Canadiens chased the puck as well as two Flames, Curtis Glencross and Brendan Morrison, in the corner while Montreal's David Desharnais seemed lost around the net and everyone forgot about Babchuk. The ice conditions had nothing to do with that. Nor were they a factor in Alex Tanguay's power play goal...
...when the Habs overloaded on the strong side. P.K. Subban was up too high and Travis Moen was unable to rotate down low in time, leaving Hal Gill as the only defender in front of Carey Price. Jarome Iginla easily picked out Tanguay at the far side for a tap in.
Lambert wrote, "The critics were right. This one just didn't feel as special because we saw a roughly similar event six weeks ago. Even the distinctiveness of the game being played at night was robbed of it by Pittsburgh rain." It may not have felt special to him, but for the 40,000 people on site, and probably the millions who watched in Canada, it was special enough. And that's why we need more of them.