NHL Winter Classic needs to reach back to hockey’s roots

To me, playing a hockey game in a football stadium or baseball park is about as ridiculous as a football game being played in a hockey rink — but wait, it has already taken place.

Few people know that an NFL playoff game in 1932 was held inside Chicago Stadium, then home of the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks. Inclement weather and a tight schedule led the NFL to take drastic measures, which involved the unloading of dump trucks filled with soil inside “the Mad House on Madison” to make an 80-yard field. The Chicago Bears beat the Portsmouth Spartans 9-0 in front of a crowd of more than 11,000.

Let’s take a quick look at not the necessitated circumstances but the novel ones of displacing a sport from its traditional venue in the interest of consumer value.
In 2001, the hockey teams of Michigan State University and the University of Michigan played in Spartan Stadium, a venue usually used to host football, in front of a crowd of more than 74,000. This inspired the Heritage Classic, which was played in 2003 at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton.

This event was a once-in-a-lifetime experience as Wayne Gretzky, Mark Mesier, Guy Lafleur and a dozen other hockey legends took to an outdoor playing surface in an Oilers versus Canadiens alumni game.

It was a special night because it was the first outdoor NHL regular season game in the 86-year existence of the league. It was in Canada and these were two of the most celebrated teams to come out of the North; it was all about going back to hockey’s roots.

Now the NHL hosts their own outdoor game every New Year’s Day, which they have dubbed the “Winter Classic” (WC). Since its inception, the annual game has been played in historic baseball parks, including Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, and football stadiums with large-scale seating capacities in Buffalo and Pittsburgh.

But unlike the Heritage Classic in Edmonton, something is missing. The NHL has turned the idea of an outdoor game into a gimmick to sell millions in merchandise and attract more viewers on television.

Initially, the WC had been about classic teams facing off. It was to give a vintage feel to the event. Buffalo and Pittsburgh were both part of a very early expansion in the NHL. Chicago vs. Detroit, Philadelphia vs. Boston; these were all previous match-ups based on classic rivalries in which the majority of the teams had played each other in the Stanley Cup finals — in some cases during the Original Six era.

This year’s edition was Washington vs. Pittsburgh — well more accurately Crosby vs. Ovechkin, a rivalry that the NHL marketing department has been trying to milk since the two players entered the league after the labour stoppage in 2005.

Unfortunately for the NHL, Crosby didn’t shine and there did not seem to be much friction between the two superstars. It rained and rained until the puck started producing vapour trails. Washington skated to a lacklustre 3-1 win on Pittsburgh’s home turf. Not what I call a magical moment.

However, the NHL may be redeeming itself this year with the revival of the Heritage Classic. The Montreal Canadiens will play the Calgary Flames at MacMahon Stadium in Calgary. I am sure that millions of Canadians will tune in to watch these two clubs, maybe even more than this year’s WC audience of 4.56 million Americans.

But one thing is still bothering me.

The NHL is picking the wrong match-ups and the wrong locations for these games to maximize television coverage and revenue.

Why not play on real rivalries instead of inventing some; the original rivalry in the NHL? Montreal versus Toronto. I can picture it now: The Habs take on the Leafs in front of a sold-out crowd at Rogers Centre.

That’s my definition of a winter classic.