Biggest Winter Classic proves NHL has winning formula

Thursday January 2nd, 2014

A record crowd battled traffic, freezing temperatures and lots of snow ... and loved every minute of it.
Carlos Osorio/AP

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The Winter Classic is, at once, bigger and smaller than a typical hockey game. It is bigger, of course, because of the venue, the crowds and the fact that when the Maple Leafs and the Red Wings looked up from their benches Wednesday, they didn't see banners hanging. They saw snow falling.

But it is smaller because it feels like pond hockey, shinny out in the elements, the way many players played as boys. Players from both Toronto and Detroit said it again after the Maple Leafs won a shootout: This made them feel like kids. The fans seemed to feel that way, too, even if they couldn't feel their own faces in the sub-20-degree weather.

How great was this? Well, for the spectators, it was a fantastic sporting event, the kind that will stick with them for years, before it even started. You walked into Michigan Stadium, and you knew: This was different. As Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said afterward, "Life is about moments. You don't remember everything; you remember moments." Toronto's Tyler Bozak, who scored the winning goal in the shootout, said: "We're going to remember this one forever."

Someday, the thrill of these games may wear off. The NHL is pushing its luck with outdoor games -- this year the league will also stage the Heritage Classic, between the Senators and the Canucks, and the Stadium Series in New York (two games, with the Rangers taking on both the Islanders and the Devils), as well as games in Chicago and Los Angeles (one each). One outdoor game each year is irresistible; five a year may become routine.

And yet ... well, who can blame the NHL? Players and coaches talk about the experience reverentially. They are in no danger of getting tired of it.

NEWCOMB: How NHL rink crews battle the elements

The NHL says 105,491 fans watched this game, the largest crowd in hockey history, and it was damn cold, even by the standards of Michigan or Ontario. Meanwhile, as the puck dropped Wednesday, the NFL was struggling to sell out playoff games in Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Green Bay.

Green Bay! What do we make of that? Obviously, the answer is not that the NFL is losing popularity. People want to watch those games, but many prefer watching them on television. If the games don't sell out, the TV broadcasts will be blacked out in those markets, but most fans are probably assuming that the games will sell out and they will watch them in high definition on their couches for free.

That is a challenge for every league now, even the mighty NFL. The television experience is so good, why pay for tickets, fight traffic, and overpay for mediocre food?

The NHL has found an event that is so much fun, people want to sit outside in lousy weather. The more it snowed on Wednesday, the happier people were. If the NHL can sell more tickets (at similar prices, in a stadium with bench seating) to a regular-season game than the NFL can sell to a postseason game, the NHL is onto something remarkable. This may be the best idea the league has ever had. And don't say that is faint praise. It's the New Year. You promised to be nice.

This was not a great hockey game. Snow prevented that. Detroit's Brendan Smith said "Sometimes you're skating with the puck and then the puck was behind you, because it hit a pile of snow or something. You get to see how good Pavel Datsyuk is because it almost didn't affect him." Datsyuk, though, told Babcock a few minutes into the game that everybody was being cautious because they were so scared of losing the puck.

It was hard for players to control the puck because the tape on their sticks was so cold. It lost stickiness. But hockey players are known to skate through postseasons with torn knee ligaments. They are unlikely to complain because their tape is cold.

The NHL has found a formula for reducing sports to its primitive essence while monetizing the heck out of it. The marketing was a bit much -- TV commercials touted this as the biggest hockey game of all-time, which is sort of like saying the biggest matchup in basketball history was when Gheorge Muresan faced Manute Bol. It's not a big game; it's a game in a big place. I mean, Red Wings center Luke Glendening played for the University of Michigan in the Big Chill at the Big House in 2010, a game that also drew 100,000 people. Does that make Glendening the biggest draw in hockey history?

It was just a regular-season game between two pretty good teams. Still, the history of hockey is filled with seminal events that were not part of the Stanley Cup chase. Hockey people talk far more about the 1972 Summit Series between Russia and Canada than about most Stanley Cup Finals. The 1980 U.S. Olympic team's upset of Russia woke America to the appeal of winner-take-all hockey. The Wayne Gretzky trade, from Edmonton to Los Angeles in 1988, opened the California market to the NHL, even as Canadians bemoaned the loss of their national treasure.

The NHL needs days like this. The outdoor games were not Gary Bettman's idea. Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis staged one in 2001, starting the modern trend. But these games are the culmination of Bettman's long, sometimes messy, often successful tenure. This is the right balance between growing the sport and honoring its roots.

In the 1990s, the NHL let its TV partner make the puck glow in a misguided attempt to sell the sport. The idea was that people weren't watching the game because they couldn't find the puck, and if the league could just show them the puck, they would tune in. Of course, if you can't be bothered to find the puck, you aren't much of a hockey fan, and if you only look at the puck, that's like wearing earmuffs to a performance by a symphony orchestra. There are a ton of moving parts in hockey -- players weave in and out of the action, and even on and off the ice, during play. That can make it hard to follow, but it is also part of what makes it great.

And this is the genius of the Winter Classic. It appeals to people who don't love hockey, but it really appeals to people who do love hockey. Nobody is alienated by the Winter Classic; nobody bemoans games in football stadiums the way they complain about shootouts.

This was a great day to become a hockey fan, and a great day to be one. Too much of a good thing? What a lovely problem.

ROLFE: The Winter Classic scene in tweets and photos
GALLERY: NHL outdoor games through the years

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