Remember when the game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire was hot? There was wall-to-wall coverage of such trivia as which state had the highest per capita so-and-so, what percentage of the population was left-handed, and which side of a president's face was in profile on a certain coin or dollar bill. There were Regis Philbin impersonators aplenty and the term "phone-a-friend" exploded into the lexicon. What a bonanza. Here was show that cost little to produce, ran at an enormous profit, and brought in a guaranteed demographic that had millions of smart viewers. Let's have more. So we got more. Millionaire was on TV every single night. Then people got tired of it. Guaranteed 17+ ratings started to plummet because viewers were oversaturated with too much of a good thing. Ask the audience? Well, yes, the audience was getting bored, thank you.
The NHL is in danger of doing what those TV executives did when they overplayed the hand of their popular game show. By almost any measuring stick, outdoor hockey has been a success. The NHL's very first al fresco clash between the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers in 2003 was going to be a novelty, a one-timer, albeit with a publicity push that resembled a Zdeno Chara backswing. But it proved to a sensation. More than 57,000 fans jammed Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium in -20 degree weather to watch the NHL teams and their alumni play a pair of games. Wayne Gretzky played with the old timers, something he swore he would never do. Mark Messier, still active with the Rangers, dressed up in his old Oiler duds to play alongside the Great One. What other major pro league would have allowed that? The game itself was fairly dull at times because players seemed content to get back to their heated benches, but Gretzky labeled his experience "unforgettable."
In 2008, the NHL returned to the idea and held a second game, a Winter Classic in Buffalo, between the Sabres and Penguins that proved to be wildly popular among fans and players. Said Penguins star Sidney Crosby, "if you play in a game like this, it will be with you for the rest of your career."
The 2009 Winter Classic at Chicago's Wrigley Field meant so much to Chris Chelios at a time when he was really just a seventh or eighth defenseman on Detroit's depth chart that he campaigned to play in it against the Blackhawks. He looked like a giddy 22-year old when he said, "This is a highlight of my career, for sure. It's a great event. It's special."
That's the word: special. One four-leaf clover is a special sight, but throw a few more into the same field and you might as well have a clump of grass. With the frequency of birthdays or, in this case, New Year's Days, Winter Classics are, indeed, special, the sort of game that most veteran players who hang around for long careers might play in once or twice; the type of event that TV executives and sponsors can embrace once a year; a game that even casual viewers will watch because it's cool to see players tangle with the elements and you only get to see that once a year.
To date, there have been five Winter Classics involving U.S. teams and two Heritage Classics (2003, 2011) pitting Canadian teams. The impetus for this run of outdoor activity was the so-called Cold War collegiate contest between Michigan and Michigan State that drew 74,500 fans to Spartan Stadium in 2001. Other leagues have since picked up on the idea. Traditional rivals Boston University and Boston College played before 38,000 students and alumni in Fenway Park before the Bruins' tilt against the Flyers in the 2010 Winter Classic. NHL players held charity games outside during the two most recent lockouts, and European teams have braved the cold for contests in Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany and other countries. Hey, in 2011, the Division III World Junior Championship game took place on an outdoor rink in Mexico City, where it probably wasn't quite as cold as Edmonton.
Word now is that the NHL may expand upon the Winter and Heritage Classics to include more frequent outdoor games. Why not bring in more fans? Why not generate more revenue? Why not? Because outdoor hockey is going to hit a saturation point. NBC televises the annual Winter Classic in the afternoon on Jan. 1, when many revelers are just waking up, content to work off hangovers by sitting in front of their TVs and crashing. The game is also a demarcation point for casual fans who start tuning into hockey after a few months of the season have passed. If No. 8 seeds such as the Kings can knock off No. 1 seeds such as the Canucks, some would say, is it really imperative to follow the playoff races in October? But checking in on the NHL in January makes a certain amount of sense when the Winter Classic feels like the start of something important.
Sure the NHL and the teams involved would love to put a game in Yankee Stadium in addition to the one that's planned between the Maple Leafs and Red Wings at Michigan Stadium next year. That one, the biggest edition yet in terms of attendance and events (the Hocketown Winter Festival at Detroit's Comerica Park) was supposed to take place this season, but the lockout iced it. There are logistical inconveniences that players are willing to overlook in order to participate in something they may do once in their lives. If they do it a dozen times, those inconveniences won't have a greater purpose and will simply become nuisances. The swells of income and buzz will also likely diminish if outdoor games are rendered less than special. The ratings will also drop if viewers don't find outdoor hockey to be such a novel idea anymore.
Savor the sip of wine; don't chug the bottle. The NHL has a winter winner that it should be careful not to spoil.