Retro Relapse: The Potential Overkill of Outdoor Hockey

RETRO RELAPSE is a series of older articles from various places where I used to write before Talking Pulp.

*Written in 2014.

Note: This was written six years ago but I still stand by it. However, now that we live in a COVID world, this might all be moot.

With the announcement that my Chicago Blackhawks will play the Washington Capitals in next year’s NHL Winter Classic, I am fairly ecstatic. Why? Well, my team will be featured in the biggest and most awesome regular season game of the year. While the Blackhawks storm Washington on New Year’s Day, millions will watch in awe, as real men take to the ice and level each other while fighting the elements and trying to score goals in much harsher conditions than playing in some random indoor arena. If the weather is anything like it was during the last Winter Classic, we are in for something special.

And that’s the thing, the Winter Classic is special. It isn’t a championship game and it really doesn’t mean anything to the record books other than a regular season win or loss for the teams involved. However, it does mean bragging rights for whomever wins the most watched game of the year. And even though bragging rights isn’t anything as big as a championship, this game does have a championship feel to it. Nothing vital is on the line but the Winter Classic still feels like the Superbowl of hockey.

As amazing, as successful and as watched as this event is, the NHL’s commissioner, Gary Bettman has taken the ball and ran with it: expanding the idea to what has become known as the NHL Stadium Series.

This passed year, due to the Winter Classic and the Stadium Series, we had 6 outdoor NHL events. We had the Winter Classic itself between the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Then there was the Blackhawks hosting the Pittsburgh Penguins at Solider Field. The New York Rangers had two games at Yankees Stadium, one against the New York Islanders and the other against the New Jersey Devils. The Vancouver Canucks hosted the Ottawa Senators in what is known as the Heritage Classic. There was also the most bizarre of any hockey game I have ever seen, which saw the Los Angeles Kings play the Anaheim Ducks at Dodgers Stadium. It was steamy, sunny and just a strange sight to behold.

Truth be told, six of these things is way too many. The last Stadium Series game played was Vancouver and Ottawa and by that point, I didn’t give a shit. I think I watched about five minutes of it and I’m a pretty hardcore hockey aficionado at this point. Granted, the Blackhawks and Penguins matchup from Soldier Field took place the night prior but even though that one featured my team, it felt less special, as I had already watched four of these games in the two months prior. Luckily, the Chicago game had insane weather and a dominant performance by my team because that made it more than worthwhile and an incredible experience.

The problem here, is that there is just too much of this Stadium Series shit. The NHL and Gary Bettman should put all their eggs in the basket that is the Winter Classic. That should be the focus and should feature great match ups. Call me an old school hockey whore but I think it should always feature at least one Original Six team. I’d say it should feature two Original Six teams but I wouldn’t want shitty markets like Nashville and Columbus crying that I’m being unfair.

The thing is, stadium hockey in the NHL has already reached overkill, at least for me. It probably isn’t that far behind with others. It is a unique experience but if you shove it down our throats six times a year, it isn’t unique anymore. If the Superbowl happened six times a year, most people wouldn’t care as much about the big one in February. And at least the Superbowl is contested for a championship. I’m not saying that the Winter Classic should be a championship game, that’s kind of hard considering the time of year and the 7 game series in the Stanley Cup Finals, but it should have that Superbowl feel and maintain it. Watering down the stadium concept by having a half dozen games in two months is going to kill it. Which sucks, because hockey doesn’t thrive in America and the Winter Classic could change that.

Additionally, college hockey has caught the bug and are now having a bunch of high profile outdoor games as well. Outdoor hockey hasn’t been uncommon at the college level but it is a different ballgame when you see collegiate teams battling it out on the ice in front of the Green Monster at Fenway Park. As a fan of collegiate hockey, this is great for their game. It is bringing interest to one of the most ignored collegiate sports in America. On the flip side, this probably cuts into the glorious pie that is the NHL’s Winter Classic because the more outdoor hockey we get, the less special it becomes.

Will the NHL get rid of all the stadium games other than the Winter Classic? I seriously doubt it, at least in the near future. These games bring big money, big TV deals and lots of advertising revenue. I get it, they are making hockey a big business but like the housing crisis a few years ago, this is a bubble that can burst.

As far as regular season hockey goes, I’m talking about the hundreds of indoor games, what does this do to them? If we have a half dozen outdoor rock stadium-like games, does this kill interest in the casual viewer watching the other 99 percent of hockey games because they are played in some lame indoor arena? I could see this stadium overkill having that effect and that would be really bad for the sport. At its essence, hockey could become ignored, as casual fans only tune in for the dog and pony show portions of the season.

The NHL, as I’ve already stated, should focus on the Winter Classic. Put everything into that one special game and grow it over time. It is an amazing concept and experience that will sell itself and grow year after year. In this case, striking while the iron is hot will be good for the short-term but dilute the effects over the long-term. I’d prefer the sport to grow and thrive, not explode and quickly fizzle out.