Puckin' Around With Spector
by Lyle Richardson on 10/26/11 at 11:41 AM ET
One of the most popular events of the NHL’s post-lockout era is its annual Winter Classic.
The notion of an outdoor regular season game on New Year’s Day was initially greeted with scepticism, as critics doubted it would draw decent ratings against the numerous American college football bowl games held on the same day.
Despite the odds, the Winter Classic has attracted huge crowds to the games, drawing some of the best television ratings in NHL history, elevating the visibility and popularity of pro hockey in the American sports market.
It’s anticipated this season’s game, featuring the New York Rangers against the Philadelphia Flyers in Philadelphia’s Citizen’s Bank Park (home of MLB’s Philadelphia Phillies), will also be a box office and TV ratings success.
This will be the Rangers first appearance in the Winter Classic, the second for the Flyers, tapping into the large fan bases of both teams.
Despite the success of the Winter Classic, the NHL risks making the game insignificant to a sizable portion of its fan base; specifically, those of western- and southern-based US teams, as well as its rabid Canadian supporters.
To date, the NHL has yet to stage a Winter Classic featuring teams from those regions. The closest they’ve come to the American west was Chicago, where the 2009 game was staged at Wrigley Field between the Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings.
That’s led to complaints the league put too much focus upon American teams in the Northeast and Atlantic divisions.
It’s puzzling the league would shut out Sun Belt teams from the Winter Classic, considering how much stock it placed in expanding into that region in the 1990s, and its ongoing determination to maintain its footprint in that region.
Geography does factor into where the Winter Classic gets staged.
Most Eastern US teams are within the same time zone, in densely populated markets where the NHL is most popular, in a climate conducive to outdoor hockey games, amongst teams which have been natural rivals for decades.
Most western- and southern-based teams, on the other hand, are separated by larger distances and time zones, their markets aren’t as large as those in the East, and for many, their warmer climate makes staging an outdoor hockey game, if not impossible thanks to modern technology, certainly a difficult, expensive proposition.
To mollify their Canadian fans, whose teams now draw over 35 percent of league revenues,the league last season staged a “Heritage Classic” between the Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames in Calgary’s McMahon Stadium, with hints of more games between other Canadian clubs in the near future.
Still, some Canadian-based critics suggest the NHL is only interested in holding their Winter Classic solely with American clubs as it considers an outdoor game between an American and a Canadian team not a strong draw for American TV ratings.
To be fair, the league does face difficulty finding suitable teams, in terms of exploiting rivalries and showcasing strong clubs and star players, to attract large crowds and ratings for each Winter Classic.
For example, of the southern-based teams in the Eastern Conference, only the Tampa Bay Lightning, coming off a surprise Conference Final appearance and carrying notable stars like Steven Stamkos and Martin St.Louis, could at this point be considered potentially marketable enough to be a potential Winter Classic participant.
Finding natural rivals from Canada to face off against American-based teams, however, wouldn’t be difficult.
The Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins, for example, have an intense, historic rivalry which stretches back decades, and could attract considerable interest from both sides of the border.
Exploiting the success of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final by staging a rematch between the Bruins and the Vancouver Canucks would also make for an entertaining match-up.
The Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche had a very heated rivalry stretching from the mid-1990s into the middle of the last decade.
The decline in the Avalanche’s fortunes in recent years took much of the spark from the rivalry, as well as the retirement of many players who had brought the intensity to those games.
But given the Red Wings ability to remain among the game’s top teams, and the current rebuilding process of the Avalanche, it’s possible within the next couple of years, those two teams could once again be competitive enough to rekindle their old rivalry, provided the Red Wings aren’t moved out of the Western Conference by then.
The Minnesota Wild are located in “The State of Hockey”, and appear a natural fit for a Winter Classic.
Unfortunately, the Wild have struggled in recent years, and there appears a difficulty in finding a natural rival for them.
It’s been suggested having a Winter Classic in which the Wild host the Dallas Stars – the former Minnesota North Stars – might be one worth considering, though those two clubs would have to maintain winning records and perhaps garner more national attention to make that work.
The Wild could have a natural rival in the reborn Winnipeg Jets, but again, both clubs would have to be playoff contenders for that to garner serious attention from the league, let alone draw a larger national audience in the United States.
Another suggestion was a “Gretzky Classic”, in which the Edmonton Oilers host the Los Angeles Kings, the gimmick being a clash between the two teams where the great Wayne Gretzky had his best seasons.
The current problem working against that is the Kings are currently considered a Stanley Cup contender, while the Oilers, filled with promising young players, have missed the playoffs in five straight seasons and are in the midst of a serious rebuild.
Perhaps in two or three years, that could become a worthwhile Winter Classic if the two teams are more evenly matched, and with more nationally recognizable stars on their rosters.
But what about having the Kings, or one of the other two California-based clubs, the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks, face off against one of the top teams from the Northeast or Atlantic Divisions?
The Sharks have been amongst the league’s best teams for several years, and have recent consecutive Conference Final appearances to their credit. The Ducks gained national exposure by winning the Stanley Cup in 2007, and carry notable stars like Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan and last season’s Hart-and Richard trophy winner, Corey Perry.
All three California-based clubs would be worthy opponents in a Winter Classic tilt against top Eastern-based teams, and could play up the angle of East versus West, or of an early preview between potential Cup Finalists.
It’s obvious that, for the time being, the NHL’s most nationally notable teams and stars are located in the Eastern Conference, particularly the northeastern US, which would attract large audiences and ratings.
Eventually, however, the NHL will have to include more American-based clubs from the Western Conference and the Sun Belt, as well as Canadian clubs, in the Winter Classic.
Otherwise, hockey fans will get weary of seeing the same handful of teams squaring off every New Year’s Day, the novelty of outdoor play will wear off, and the NHL will start losing more viewers to the college bowl games.
It would be a shame to see The Winter Classic, which has become an anticipated date on the NHL calendar, becoming as insignificant as the All-Star Game.
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About Puckin' Around With Spector
I’m Lyle Richardson. You might know me from my website, Spector’s Hockey, my thrice-weekly rumor column at THN.com, my weekly column at Eishockey News (if you read German), and my former gig as a contributing writer to Foxsports.com.
I’ll be writing a once-weekly blog here with my take on all things NHL. Who knows, I might actually find time to debunk a trade rumor or two.