On the eve of the 2015 Winter Classic, preparations for the annual outdoor event are still in motion. With one day left until the game, Nationals Park is brimming with excitement. The 2015 NHL Spectator Plaza is ready for throngs of fans waiting to make their own Winter Classic memories. But with a plethora of outdoor games to choose from now, has the novelty of the Winter Classic turned somewhat ordinary?
When the NHL Winter Classic burst onto the sports scene in 2008, the public was enchanted by hockey returning to its natural habitat: the outdoors. It was new and fresh, bringing an exciting appeal to hockey fans and non-hockey fans alike. The game featuring the Buffalo Sabers against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Ralph Wilson Stadium set the then-NHL-record audience of 71,217 fans in attendance.
The NHL quickly looked to capitalized on the allure of the game, making it an annual event. The following year, Wrigley Field hosted the Chicago Blackhawks versus the Detroit Redwings. It was the highest American television ratings of any hockey game in 33 years. The next five years, save for the 2013 Winter Classic that never was, the annual outdoor game drew crowds and attention.
Hoping to retain that attention (and revenue), the NHL added more outdoor games to its schedule starting in 2014. These four additional games, called the NHL Stadium Series, were played in baseball and football stadiums around the United States. The games featured the Los Angeles Kings versus the Anaheim Ducks at Dodger Stadium, the Pittsburgh Penguins versus the Chicago Blackhawks at Solider Field, the New Jersey Devils versus the New York Rangers at Yankee Stadium and the New York Islanders versus the Rangers at Yankee Stadium. In addition to these games, the Heritage Classic, which actually spawned the Winter Classic with its Edmonton success in 2003, is played somewhat annually in Canada, with 2011 and 2014 games and a planned 2015 event.
With all of these outdoor games being added to the schedule, the Winter Classic loses the exclusivity element. With multiple outdoor games to attend, there is less focus on what once was the premier regular season NHL event. Instead of hoping your team gets chosen to compete on the national stage, numerous teams are playing outside. While the argument of spreading the wealth certainly is a good point, the question of overkill also comes into question.
Part of the allure of the Winter Classic was its distinctiveness. When else could you watch Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby battle it out under the big lights? Hockey was returning to its native element and you had to be watching on New Year’s Day to see it. By peppering the NHL regular season with outdoor games, it takes away some of the draw from the Winter Classic. If you miss it, no problem! Just catch the five other outdoor games this season.
When the Washington Capitals and the Chicago Blackhawks face off tomorrow afternoon at Nationals Park, it will be an unforgettable experience for both the players and the fans. But once upon a time, when the sun set on the Winter Classic, it was a final farewell to the NHL’s sole outdoor event of the season. It was special. It was one-of-a-kind. It was an honor to be chosen. Now, there are half a dozen outdoor games. By attempting to maximize the attention of the Winter Classic with additional outdoor games, the NHL has exploited one of their most valuable assets. One has to wonder where they will draw the line, and if it will be in time to salvage the novelty of the famed Winter Classic.