Winter Classic: The Past, Present and Future

The Winter Classic was another huge success for the NHL in 2010. Grand Central sports writer Doug Sears Jr. has a few ideas for Gary Bettman to make it even better.

On the first of January, the National Hockey League held its third annual Winter Classic. The NHL has now held four outdoor regular season games, including three in a row that have occurred on January 1st. The game has become a marquee event for the league, which consistently pulls in ratings the NHL has not seen for a regular season game since Wayne Gretzky’s last game in 1999.
As the NHL looks forward to the next few Classics, they must maximize the appeal of these events before the novelty of it wears off, and firmly entrench the NHL as a big part of the first day of the year in the United States right next to the bowl games. With that in mind, here are a few goals for the NHL to focus on in order to create the best event and generate the most exposure.

Sell the Stars

The NHL has experienced a huge upswing in young, marketable talent since the 2004-05 lockout, led by superstars Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals. Unfortunately, other than Crosby and Ovechkin, the average player in the NHL is anonymous in American pop culture. While the NHL markets their Lebron James, they have not identified the Kevin Durant, a second tier star and incredible young talent who is known by a majority of casual fans.

However, players of this caliber are spread around the league, but the NHL does not do enough to market them. For the next year, the league needs to make a concerted effort to sell talents like Zach Parise of the New Jersey Devils, an American born superstar who garnered MVP votes after his 97 point season last year, or Ryan Getlzlaf, a big yet unbelievably skilled forward of the Anaheim Ducks, who has a skill set rarely seen in a player of his stature at 6’4″ and 220 lbs.

Return to the Gridiron

The NHL has held the last two Winter Classics in two of Major League Baseball’s most storied venues, Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. While the dynamic of hockey played where Ernie Banks and Ted Williams once starred was good from a marketing standpoint, most fans who attended were left with seats that were either too far from the ice, or at a bad angle to watch the action.

While there is a lot of difficulty in setting up in an NFL stadium, because of the NFL schedule, the football stadium still allows the best views. However, there are options the NHL can pursue to give the in-house fans a good show while still allowing the ice to exist for a few weeks to host games for high school and college teams, which were very successful and sought after at Fenway.

The NHL must instead turn to outdoor college football stadiums such as Beaver Stadium at Penn State, or Ann Arbor’s Michigan Stadium, both of which would obliterate the previous record for most fans in attendance at a hockey game, set in Spartan Stadium for a game between the Wolverines and Spartans. Start with some of college football’s most storied venues, and imagine a game between the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets at Ohio State’s famed Horseshoe. It would be a nice contrast for all of Michigan to be rooting for the red team to beat the blue team in that matchup.

Another option is Giants stadium in New Jersey, which will be vacated next year by the Jets and Giants, and would be a great place to host the Marian Gaborik led New York Rangers against Parise and the Devils. The 80,000 seat stadium in the Meadowlands is a great place to watch a snowy football game, why not a snowy hockey game?

Bring the Canadians into the fold

The last few Winter Classics have pitted American teams against each other, in an effort to draw in two American viewing markets. While the game should be kept in America to maintain the American audience, bringing in Canadian teams will open the door for more rivalries, such as the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens, or the Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs. The NHL could also bring in the Vancouver Canucks to the state of Washington, where many hockey fans have adopted their northern neighbors’ hockey team as their own.

The Winter Classic at this point is almost entirely a marketing event, a chance to sell the game. Obviously, the number one way to sell the game is simply a great hockey game. However, the NHL must realize that while that cannot be guaranteed, what can be brought to the table are interesting storylines and well known teams and players with loyal followings. The NHL should begin planning years in advance for future Classics, setting them up to succeed by creating and bolstering the star status of it’s players and searching for more and more interesting storylines that will win over college football fans feeling disenfranchised with the increasingly less important New Years’ Day games.