Explain It Like I’m ESPN: Outdoor NHL Games
“Explain It Like I’m ESPN” is a new feature on LongHanded that will discuss issues in the hockey word as if they’re being explained to the executives at ESPN, who clearly have no interest in hockey.
Over the past number of years, hockey fans may have noticed that the NHL has developed an obsession with playing games outside. The fascination started innocently enough, with the league slightly flirting with the idea of playing games outside, even trying it out a couple of times, but has since grown to a full-fledged, memorize your daily schedule and go through your garbage, creepy stalker obsession, as the NHL has latched onto outdoor games like Jenny McCarthy clings to relevancy.
Although the NHL has reached a Belieber-esque level of obsession with outdoor games, they were not always so keen on them. The first outdoor NHL game took place in 1991, and was a pre-season game between Wayne Gretzky’s Los Angeles Kings and the New York Rangers. An Original Six team versus the greatest player in the game seems like a great idea, although its execution was difficult and the organizers were presented with many problems, mainly because they chose to host the game in the parking lot of Caesar’s Palace. Which is in Las Vegas, Nevada. Which is in the middle of the fricking desert. Besides the obvious problem of “how the hell do we keep a decent ice surface when we’re in a desert?” there were other issues, including the ice becoming too cold and cracking (seriously) and plagues of grasshoppers who thought the ice was water and flocked to it, then froze to death leaving little speed bumps on the ice that would have to be cleaned up during the game. Although the game drew 13,000 spectators, or the equivalent of about 130 Panthers pre-season games, it’s safe to say the NHL was justified in staying away from outdoor games for a while. (For a great read on this game, check out Puck Daddy’s recent post.)
12 years after the well-meaning attempt in Vegas, the Edmonton Oilers hosted the Montreal Canadiens in the first ever regular season game played outside. Demand was huge: over 750,000 fans from around the world entered a lottery to be selected to purchase the last 7,000 tickets available. The event also featured an alumni game with former stars from each team, and was the first time Wayne Gretzky laced them up for the public since his retirement (he’s kinda money, the NHL should really try to take advantage of that instead of screwing him). Attendance for the game was an NHL record 57,167 and was a huge ratings success with few logistical issues, mainly because Edmonton is cold and hockey is popular in Canada.
In 2004, NBC pitched the idea of having an annual outdoor game (gee, I wonder how they thought of that, one year after the Heritage Classic) although the NHL wasn’t initially too interested, probably because they were more focused on hurting the game by cancelling an entire season than actually improving it. It took a few years, but eventually the first Winter Classic was held on New Year’s Day in 2008 featuring the Buffalo Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The game broke the previous record with over 71,000 spectators in attendance and was a huge success. Sell-out crowds, huge ratings, American TV audiences interested in hockey? The league saw dollar signs, and immediately moved to make the Winter Classic an annual event.
The Winter Classic was held each year since then, until 2013 when the NHL lockout prevented it from occurring as, once again, the NHL was more concerned with saving money than making money. So when the lockout was resolved and the opportunity to have an outdoor game again, the league got… a bit carried away.
They scheduled another Winter Classic featuring two Original Six Teams. Great! Then they announced another Heritage Classic game in Vancouver. Perfect, great to see another outdoor game in Canada! And then they created the Stadium Series; four, yes, FOUR outdoor games, bringing the total number of outdoor games that season alone (over a span of 61 days) to six. They even held one in California, as apparently the league is determined to flirt with disaster.
The NHL has completely whored out the concept of outdoor games, turning a great idea into a gimmick. As Joan Van Ark’s face has taught us, too much of something can be bad and kinda gross, and it seems outdoor games will be squeezed for every dollar the league can get until they meet their demise. Whether it be lower ratings, disappointing attendance, or swarms of grasshoppers, something will cause the decline in outdoor games, and the league will have no one to blame but themselves.
Tags: Explain It Like I'm ESPN