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Winter Classic In Danger Of Becoming Insignificant.

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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Comments

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I think this is kind of stupid. The game will not become insignificant. Remember last year? When most NHL fans were pissed off about the match-up? Said they wouldn’t watch? What happened? Only the best ratings the game has had to date. This year will probably be down in terms of ratings but still good for the NHL.

What “sun-belt” team could possibly be in a game right now? None. I think it will happen in the future but not right now, while the game is still growing.

Stars/Wild is a must, but the Stars aren’t doing so good right now. The team is actually doing good but the fans aren’t supporting the team. The Wild while still holding a strong following in Minnesota, aren’t playing great.

Future Classics should include Avalanche/Kings, and Lightning/Capitals. Those include some of those teams. Other musts include: Rangers/Devils @ New Meadowlands, Flyers/Penguins @ Penn State (Further down the line. In 5+ years), Blackhawks/Wings Rematch @ Michigan Stadium, a game @ Ohio State if the Blue Jackets ever become relevant, a Leafs/Canadiens Heritage Classic, an Oilers/Flames Heritage classic, possibly Predators/Blues (If both teams become consistent winners since they both have solid fanbases)

Posted by Kevin on 10/26/11 at 12:46 PM ET

Hank1974's avatar

As a Canadian I don’t care that there hasn’t been a Canadian team involved yet.
I get all the Leafs, Habs, Oilers, etc. I can handle on a weekly basis with TSN, Sportsnet, CBC and the NHL network.

Watching two teams I barely ever get to see is great. And I love how they’re choosing teams from great hockey markets.

But if there’s one game I’d like to see, that would appease both sides of the border it would be Wings-Leafs.

Posted by Hank1974 on 10/26/11 at 12:56 PM ET

awould's avatar

But if there’s one game I’d like to see, that would appease both sides of the border it would be Wings-Leafs.

That would be a huge draw, I think.

I would be happy seeing some west and south teams too. A matchup between SJ or LA and Boston or some other east team would be cool. A rematch of Detroit/Chicago at the Big House would be pretty sweet too.

Posted by awould on 10/26/11 at 01:16 PM ET

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What “sun-belt” team could possibly be in a game right now? None.

Why not?  Why couldn’t the Kings or Sharks possibly be in a game?  Or the Lightning?

But if there’s one game I’d like to see, that would appease both sides of the border it would be Wings-Leafs.

Absolutely.  I don’t have a problem with a lack of Canadian teams, and I think that an irregular Heritage Classic is fine, but I would love a Wings/Leafs game.  I’ve read that having the game in Detroit in the near future is a possibility and I think Toronto would be a natural opponent for them.  And I think Toronto is a “big” enough “name” team that it would not alienate potential American viewers the way an Edmonton or Calgary or Ottawa might.

Posted by Garth on 10/26/11 at 01:17 PM ET

Nate A's avatar

I’m not sure it will ever become completely insignificant, but it really has been an event to showcase US based O6 and New England area teams(I’m gonna lump PIT and WAS into that group). If I’m any of the other 20 teams in the league, I’d be miffed that my team doesn’t even get consideration.

It clearly is an event for US TV, but a Canadian team should have been included in the first 3 years. And no team should have had a 2nd game yet. Due to this “exclusivity,” I get the feeling the gimmick has lost its luster for teams and their fans not involved in the game.

Posted by Nate A from Detroit-ish on 10/26/11 at 01:18 PM ET

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If Ottawa can finally start picking up some steam within the next couple seasons, a great game to tie Canada and USA together for ratings could be the capital of the United States VS. the capital of Canada:  Washington Capitals vs. Ottawa Senators. It could give fair weather fans something to root for: USA vs. Canada.

Just a thought.

Posted by CapRat from Fredericksburg, VA on 10/26/11 at 01:24 PM ET

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Why don’t they just have their “Winter Classic” for the Southern teams, and host a “Heritage Classic” the same day for Canadian teams. This way you’d be able to pick whichever game you want to see and everyone is happy. Heck, stagger the start times and watch both.

Posted by Kevin B. from Edmonton on 10/26/11 at 01:33 PM ET

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Is this writer kidding when he suggests canadian fans may turn on hockey if they don’t let a team from Canada play in the Winter Classic?  I believe the NHL realizes they have a great, loyal fan base in Canada.  The Winter Classic is more an effort to grow the game in the US and build a strong following here.  I think this writer insults the fans in Canada with his remarks.

Posted by RogerNYLA on 10/26/11 at 01:50 PM ET

Hank1974's avatar

Is this writer kidding when he suggests canadian fans may turn on hockey if they don’t let a team from Canada play in the Winter Classic?  I believe the NHL realizes they have a great, loyal fan base in Canada.  The Winter Classic is more an effort to grow the game in the US and build a strong following here.  I think this writer insults the fans in Canada with his remarks.

Mine is a small sample size, but me and my group of buddies have never complained about there never being a Canadian team in the Winter Classic.
Like I said, here in the Windsor, ON area, we’d all love to see Wings-Leafs, but every one of my hockey-loving Canuck brethren never miss a W.C. and we all enjoy it immensely regardless of the teams.

Posted by Hank1974 on 10/26/11 at 01:53 PM ET

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Is this writer kidding when he suggests canadian fans may turn on hockey

Sorry, I must have missed it, but where exactly does he say that?

All he said was that Canadians might turn away from the Winter Classic.

Posted by Garth on 10/26/11 at 02:24 PM ET

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Rain and bad ice.  Woohoo.

Posted by tuxedoTshirt on 10/26/11 at 02:35 PM ET

Lyle Richardson's avatar

Thanks, Garth. That’s exactly what I was suggesting.

I also acknowledged ratings had been high in the past, and this year’s are likely to be solid, too.

My point was to express concern the league will rely too much on a small number of Eastern-based teams for the Winter Classic, at the expense of other, equally worthy teams, which over time could turn off a number of NHL fans from watching that game.

I also acknowledged the difficulty the league has in scheduling suitable teams to showcase in those games.

Thought those points were obvious.

Posted by Lyle Richardson on 10/26/11 at 02:36 PM ET

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All we know for sure is that a team that has appeared in the Winter Classic in the past three years will appear once again in the Winter Classic following this one.

Posted by hockey1919 from mid-atlantic on 10/26/11 at 06:36 PM ET

Hank1974's avatar

The NHL says it wants to help out struggling teams and fanbases.
So put your money where your mouth is at and have the Wings play the Bluejackets in the Horseshoe for next years W.C.

Posted by Hank1974 on 10/26/11 at 06:44 PM ET

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How about the teams that were in the finals the year before hand? Boston vs. Vancouver that way both conferences could be represented. Just an idea. Or just make it a Pittsburgh scrimmage…  I think U.S. fans that never watch another game could get behind that.

Posted by thom from california on 10/26/11 at 07:15 PM ET

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Why not Sharks go visit the Flames.  That used to be a good rival.  Or Kings go to the Sharks at Pac bell park in San Fran.  Its bellow 70 there so the ice would be good.  Or does the NHL just like the East coast teams?

Posted by Matt from United States on 10/26/11 at 10:14 PM ET

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The NHL says it wants to help out struggling teams and fanbases.

Is that what the Winter Classic is about?  Or is it about appealing to the biggest audience possible?

Its bellow 70 there so the ice would be good.

I have to assume you’re kidding…

Posted by Garth on 10/27/11 at 12:52 AM ET

Faux Rumors's avatar

1) Its all about the almighty dollar.  As long as they can get 50,000+ fans paying huge ticket prices and getting a nice nationwide exposure with decent ratings the “Classic” will continue. I don’t think it was ever intended to be equally distributed to include all 30 teams. 
2) Much like the NBA rarely/smartly doesn’t have bottom tiered teams playing on Christmas day or other marquis network games, the NHL needs to provied a compellig matchup that generates the most buzz/interest to maximize profits

Posted by Faux Rumors from Globally- Here, there, Everywhere on 10/28/11 at 03:02 PM ET

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@Hank: Love that idea. Blue Jackets fans could really use something to look forward to. The only thing is that you’d be putting a potentially really lousy team in the game.

Posted by dzuunmod on 10/28/11 at 04:47 PM ET

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Ok the only reason they have the winter classic in the USA and never canada is because they want the game to get bigger not alot of people like hockey like canada does whitch i think is really stupid i mean why do american teams get the right to do that? its not there sport neither personally i would see Oilers and Calgary go at it i mean that would be perfect battle of alberta they favour the US teams to much….

Posted by Justin from Canada on 11/26/11 at 06:02 PM ET

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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.