Last May, as the Los Angeles Kings made their unexpected run to the Stanley Cup final, there was already talk of hosting an outdoor hockey game at Dodger Stadium.
This was before the lockout, when the 2013 Winter Classic was still a go and when the NHL was already asking for expressions of interest from teams for its 2014 outdoor schedule.
The Kings wanted one and so, it turns, did almost every other team in the NHL. Response to the idea proved to be overwhelming, something commissioner Gary Bettman acknowledged last month, when he noted “there’s tons of interest in a lot of places for lots of games.”
If that wasn’t proof enough of the NHL’s intentions to ramp up its outdoor schedule, there was also this from Bettman: “The concept of the outdoor game has taken on larger proportions than anybody has imagined, not just as the terrific national property it is for us on New Year’s Day, but as a local in-market event.
“It has been nothing short of fabulous and transformational.”
In Bettman’s world, if something is nothing short of fabulous and transformational, then there is no such thing as too much of a good thing. So even if the NHL was being carefully non-committal about reports circulating this week – that the league could host up to six outdoor games next season – you can be sure that’s exactly what is in the works.
There will be the rescheduled Winter Classic (already announced for Jan. 1, 2014, between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor). There will be another Heritage Classic (the third), hosted by the Vancouver Canucks in early March. And there will be one that will surely intrigue – at Dodger Stadium, towards the end of January, between the Kings and Anaheim Ducks.
When the idea of an L.A. game was first broached, the question on everybody’s mind was: How do you play outdoors where the average temperature in late January tends to be a balmy 20 C?
After all, it has been hard enough to make good ice in some of the cold-weather cities that have hosted the Winter Classic (remember Pittsburgh, the rain and the hit on Sidney Crosby?). There have been issues with rain, with wind and with the glare of the sun on the ice, not to mention times when freezing temperatures made it was almost too cold to play.
But Los Angeles Dodgers president Stan Kasten, who used to run the Atlanta Thrashers, made it clear when the first reports were circulating: “Facility-wise, we could certainly handle it.”
And let’s face it, they played an NHL exhibition game in the parking lot at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas in 1991, when the ice-making technologies weren’t nearly as evolved as they are now; where the temperatures were closing in on 32 C at puck drop; and where the biggest issue were the grasshoppers that scooted onto the ice through the Zamboni entrance and were immediately popsicled in the slushy deteriorating ice.
If they could make it work then and there, they can certainly do it today in L.A., where they’ll play the game at night to keep the outside temperatures as cool as possible.
As a concept, outdoor games have been exceptionally well-received, beginning with the one in Edmonton in 2003, and continuing with the first official Winter Classic, at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park on New Year’s Day in 2008, between the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins.
The players, coaches, teams, fans and television audiences all embraced the concept. A league that gets little credit for creative marketing hit a home run.
In 2011, the NHL played two outdoor games, one in Pittsburgh, one in Calgary (Heritage Classic). It was a monumental undertaking and put a lot of stress on equipment and staff – from ice-maker Dan Craig to everybody involved in handling the logistics.
So one game, brilliant. Two games, doable. Three, a stretch, but who doesn’t want to see how outdoor hockey looks in Chavez Ravine? But six?
Six seems like overkill.
Six takes a special event and turns it into something routine.
Six outdoor games looks like a cash grab because, hey, let’s face it, those tickets will sell fast as a “local in-market event.”
For the teams lucky enough to be the host, it’s the equivalent of two extra dates at the box office. And since the lockout was all about increasing the NHL’s overall revenues – so the players won’t feel the sting of going down to a 50/50 split nearly as much – this initiative will certainly increase revenues, short-term anyway.
Measuring the long-term effect of so many outdoor games will be more challenging.
Part of what makes an outdoor game so compelling is the novelty factor.
When the first one was played at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium, it was so cold it took the hardiest of fan, wearing the most insulating of winter clothes, to sit through the afternoon alumni game and the evening main attraction. Jose Theodore famously wore a tuque over his goalie mask.
Most people would endure those sorts of conditions once. Likely far fewer would put up with them twice. If they play six a year for the next six years, pretty soon every team in the league will have hosted a couple and then where are you?
It just makes more sense to keep it as a special event, something you can point to annually on the hockey calendar and say, ‘gotta set aside time for that.’ The minute it becomes a choice of six, then suddenly, the dilution starts – and who knows where it could end?
The NHL just might be killing its golden goose.