Since 2008 the Winter Classic has stood as one of the most unique and impressive pillars in the four major sports leagues. An outdoor spectacle that was made for TV helped give legitimacy to a league that had lost far too much in the first half of the 2000s.
The 2012-13 lockout not only caused a cancellation of the Red Wings and Maple Leafs at the Big House but also cut away a great deal of fan allegiance after a second lockout in fewer than 10 years. The league compensated for the loss of half a season, an outdoor game and a great deal of revenue with six outdoor games last season.
With this year’s Winter Classic fast approaching, I find myself very disinterested in the build up to the game. Overall my level of interest for the game is incredibly low and it is somewhat amplified by the general lack of hype for what has previously been appointment television.
Losing 24/7 and the punch brought to the table by HBO certainly helps to amplify the lack of buzz or hype about the game, but the apathy surrounding the event seems to extend beyond that of the chatter regarding a pay-cable network’s inside look at the two teams.
What’s interesting is that the Epix production of Road to the Winter Classic has been excellent, in my opinion. I really enjoyed each of the first two episodes and I’m looking forward to the final pair. But even that hasn’t helped to boost my excitement for the upcoming game.
Even the jersey unveilings were just part of the white noise of the NHL in the summer. Maybe if one or both jerseys were more attractive I’d personally feel differently, but there hasn’t been all that much discussion on either since they were unveiled.
The entire practice just feels tired.
I shared my opinion on the risk the NHL was running last year with an oversaturation of outdoor games and it’s hitting home with me this season. There are more factors than the number of games featured in 2013-14, but even with Ovechkin and the total star power of the Blackhawks, the Classic just seems to be lacking the punch it did in recent years. Much in the way a “Wednesday Night Rivalry” showdown between Minnesota and Boston lacks in pizzazz, this matchup in this venue has the same type of feel to it.
Maybe some of the apathy is fueled because the league has set such a high bar. Between 2008’s snow globe in Buffalo and the awesome imagery from Wrigley and Fenway in the two following years, the NHL couldn’t miss with the Classic and the addition of HBO and 24/7 continued that momentum. There was really no sign of a potential hangover at any point, even with a relatively tame venue and matchup in 2012. Of course, Ilya Bryzgalov and a last second penalty shot helped that quite a bit.
In my opinion the problem is two-fold. The league is running short on quality matchups in addition to a shortfall of signature host venues. The latter point was perpetuated by last year’s Stadium Series christening Soldier Field, Chavez Ravine and Yankee Stadium with ice rinks.
Additionally, the NHL has already doubled up on the Flyers, Blackhawks, Capitals, Penguins and Red Wings in the Classic. The Kings will play their second outdoor game this season and the Rangers have played outdoors three times. That accounts for a great deal of the league’s major TV markets getting a pair of run-throughs in a six year-old event. Now the Bruins appear set to not only play in their second Classic but to become the first two-time host in 2016.
Gary Bettman once stated that he wanted to keep the Winter Classic special and that he didn’t even see it as an annual event in hopes of maintaining that prestige. Clearly the money infused to the league’s coffers kept that vision from coming to fruition but it may also be what has damned a once great event.
Two outdoor games this year plus two, possibly four (per the article above), next season shows that the league has no interest in downshifting nor do they seem to have much interest in keeping the showdowns or venues for the Winter Classic iconic.
You can’t just draw up a Crosby vs. Ovechkin showdown every season nor can you hope to recycle the same, tired rivalries for the sake of posterity. But to throw a pair of teams with no shared history into a pretty nondescript baseball stadium has the makings for a miss on far too many levels.
Perhaps a Bruins-Canadiens matchup next season will help reinvigorate interest into the Classic. It will certainly give a great deal of relevance to the two teams on the ice, which is a major factor. But with the potential for another handful of outdoor games slated for 2015-16, the NHL still doesn’t seem concerned about ruining what previously set them apart from the other four major leagues.