The great outdoors?

Debating the NHL's move from one to six outdoor games

Photo: 
Photo: 
Photo: 

The NHL is going back to its roots in aggressive fashion.

Since 2008, the league has held an annual outdoor game, pitting two historic or acrimonious franchises against each other to amplify a regular season matchup.

That number will rise exponentially in 2014, with six outdoor contests scheduled. Three Canadian teams are featured, along with marquee NHL franchises in Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York and Los Angeles.

Should the NHL be praised for such radical growth? Scorned for shunning the status quo? Shamed for not abolishing outdoor games altogether? The debate rages on, amongst staff and hockey fans everywhere.

The case for… MULTIPLE GAMES

By Nick Faris
Sports Editor

To paraphrase Patrick Roy, Gary Bettman has dollar signs plugging his ears.

The NHL is right to go big on its favourite annual tradition. Maligned for orchestrating three lockouts during his reign as the league’s commissioner, Bettman’s introduction of annual outdoor games has been nothing but positive, satisfying fans and fortifying the league’s bottom line in the process.

The model’s proven itself worthy: put a throwback sweater on a current star, plant him in a football or baseball stadium, and the fans will come. It’s smart business for the NHL to maximize that appeal, and threatening the sanctity of a single outdoor classic is a paltry price to pay.

Nothing the NHL ever does is done in the spirit of the game. Buzzwords like “heritage” and “classic” are ploys to get fans emotionally invested, professionalizing the purity of pond hockey in the name of cold, hard profit. This isn’t a bad thing.

To put it bluntly, people love outdoor games. Record audiences tune into NBC for every Winter Classic. Each of the league’s seven modern outdoor games has drawn over 38,000 spectators, skyrocketing to 71,217 for the 2008 Winter Classic in Buffalo. At the bare minimum, that’s double the maximum attendance at most NHL rinks.

With multiple games scheduled, fans of 11 teams will be exposed to the wonders of outdoor hockey, including many who have been consistently shafted in past years. The league can parlay increased interest in Anaheim and Los Angeles into a Ducks-Kings matchup at Dodger Stadium – a cash cow that would never have otherwise materialized.

Ultimately, there’s nothing to lose. If interest wanes over the course of the season, the NHL can always scale back to a few annual outdoor games, or revert to one. Some fans may grumble about overextending a good thing. Judging by the stats, they’ll tune in for every outdoor tilt either way.

Hockey has always lagged behind other major North American sports in terms of fan engagement. The original purpose of outdoor games was to set the NHL apart – a bold feat accomplished through ambition and creativity.

By braving the outdoors, the NHL thrusts itself to the forefront of international sports coverage for one day each year. What’s the harm in trying for six?

The case for… ONE GAME

By Sean Sutherland
Assistant Sports Editor

Nothing says outdoor hockey like Los Angeles.

The increase in outdoor games, including one on Jan. 25 at Dodger Stadium in L.A., will more than likely damage the league’s ability to host the Winter Classic after the 2013-14 season.

When the NHL first introduced the Heritage Classic in 2003, it was a novel concept. Outdoor games had taken place before, mainly on the international stage, but those games had never featured NHL talent.

Fast forward 10 years and the Winter Classic has become the biggest showcase for the NHL. Depending on the size of the stadium, between 40,000 and 70,000 fans pack the stands. It’s a great source of income for the league.

The NHL’s logic here makes sense. If they can make a massive amount of money of one outdoor game, they should be able to make even more money with six.

The problem with looking at the games from a merchandising and financial standpoint is the fact that the Winter Classic loses all of its novelty with five other games taking the focus away from it.

After all, fans are going to be less interested in an outdoor game when they watched one the day before, a situation the NHL has created twice this season. They also won’t be interested when the New York Rangers play at Yankee Stadium twice over a four-day span.

There’s a precedent for overdoing a special occasion in sports. Major League Baseball played two all-star games every year between 1959 and 1962. The league stopped doing so because the appeal of the event became watered down.

The Winter Classic is a very interesting concept and makes for great TV, but it isn’t going to have the same impact unless there’s only a single outdoor game that capitalizes on the nostalgia it brings.

As a throwback to the past, the game is perfect. It brings back memories of playing on the pond, lake or backyard rink. It’s a way of connecting the origins of the sport with today’s game. An overabundance of nostalgia is never a good thing.

While the NHL has had success with the Winter Classic, they need to realize their best interests are served by keeping the game a one-time occasion every season.

And never playing it in Los Angeles.

The case for… NO GAMES

By Alison Shouldice
Editor in Chief

As a hockey fan, if I were offered a ticket to the Winter Classic, I’d accept only reluctantly.

This is because outdoor NHL games offer very little to ticket-buying fans and have no place in the league.

It’s no surprise the NHL chose to expand from one outdoor game to six. The games rake in tons of cash and, in past years, the Winter Classic has brought in impressive television ratings.

No doubt, it’s a fun experience to see an outdoor game live - it’s a huge spectacle. The Winter Classic in particular taps into our nostalgic side, with players donning classic jerseys and embroidered toques.

But if fans are looking for a quality hockey game, stay away.

The venues are usually American football or baseball stadiums that can pack up to 70,000 people in the stands - far more than an NHL arena. It’s not exactly an intimate experience.

Since these venues aren’t traditional hockey arenas, the field space is much larger than that of a standard NHL rink, making the stands further removed from the ice. The up-close experience you can get by buying front row seats is gone - even those who purchase these tickets have a mediocre view at best.

For the players, it can’t be much better. NHL arenas are typically kept in precise conditions to ensure the ice is in its best condition. Ice quality at outdoor games is contingent on the weather, an unpredictable factor.

The 2011 and 2012 Winter Classic games were both postponed for hours due to rain. They ended up being played in warm conditions, which undoubtedly affected the ice. Two Winter Classic games saw teams switch ends mid-third period, due to concerns that the sun and wind would give one an advantage.

Outdoor games aren’t exactly ideal for players, whose game can get thrown off by a change in environment. When clinching a playoff spot often comes down to one or two points, a single game can make a difference.

With outdoor games, the quality of a good hockey game just isn’t there. The NHL needs to realize that money isn’t everything - ticket-buying fans, its players and the quality of the games should come first.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.