The NHL has only just begun its great outdoor experiment.
With the fifth instalment of the Winter Classic game set to be played between the Rangers and Flyers at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park on Monday, NHL chief operating officer John Collins continues to dream big about what lies beyond it.
Among his goals is seeing the game make more of an impact nationally. Even though all of the league's outdoor games to date have been a big hit on the local level, Collins sees plenty of room for growth.
“It's still early, it's only five years,” he said Thursday in an interview with The Canadian Press. “Certainly we've got a lot of attention and I think the business metrics have been great. I think just getting to more markets (will help with) exposing the game.”
Collins is the driving force behind the Winter Classic, having taken an idea that started with the Heritage Classic at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium in November 2003 and turned it into a significant yearly event on New Year's Day.
An eager television partner also played a significant role in its creation — “Winter Classic kind of landed on Jan. 1 because frankly NBC had a big window on a big day, why wouldn't you take advantage of that?” said Collins — but the future of outdoor games likely includes those played on other dates as well.
A second game was played at Calgary's McMahon Stadium last season and Collins seems warm to the idea seeing multiple outdoor dates on the schedule again in the future. That model gives the league a chance to start satisfying the demand from teams wanting in on the action.
“Absolutely, there should be more Canadian teams in these games,” said Collins. “Just like teams like Minnesota should be involved and St. Louis should be involved and Colorado should be involved — you can just keep going on and on.”
Since Collins took a job with the NHL in August 2008, the league has constructed its calendar around big events. It's reasonable to assume that additional outdoor games could be used to bolster the lineup.
“I think there are a lot of markets that would be fantastic,” he said. “I'd like to ultimately see these games not viewed as a regional matchup or a Canada game or a U.S. game, but really kind of a celebration of hockey. If you're a hockey fan — whether you're a Canadian hockey fan or an American hockey fan or a Flyers fan or Flames fan — these games are special and unique and you should be tuning in even if your favourite team isn't playing in the game.
“It's kind of that line that we use all the time: `Nobody ever cancelled their Super Bowl party because they didn't like the two teams that were playing in the game.“’
Interestingly, Collins believes the league missed out on an opportunity to take the Winter Classic to another level in Pittsburgh last season.
There was plenty of hype leading into a game between Sidney Crosby's Penguins and Alex Ovechkin's Capitals, particularly with HBO's “24/7” series playing to rave reviews during its first hockey venture. But poor weather at Heinz Field forced the start time to be pushed back to the evening and some momentum was lost.
That also ended up being the night Crosby suffered an undiagnosed concussion, which ensured 2011 would become a year the sport's best player would rather forget.
“I thought last year the game matchup with Ovechkin and Crosby was something that would help get it over the top,” said Collins. “And then unfortunately we had to move the starting time of the game, puck drop, which was a great thing — it was fun to be in prime time, it looked great — but there was that disconnect with people who knew the game was on at 1 p.m.
“(They) might have come to NBC to watch the game at 1 p.m., and almost didn't realize that they were watching old Winter Classic games. So there was a bit of a falloff there.”
The weather forecast for Monday's game appears to be good. In the event of inclement weather or poor ice conditions, Collins says the contingency plan includes moving the start time back to late afternoon or evening on Jan. 2 or possibly pushing it back to Jan. 3 “if the day really is bad.”
“But it doesn't look like we're going to have that kind off issue this year,” he added.
This Winter Classic promises to be the biggest yet, with a soldout alumni game scheduled for Saturday — just one more sign of growth for the NHL's signature weekend. HBO's second “24/7” foray has also helped create interest.
As much as Collins enjoys seeing the Winter Classic “light up a city,” he's curious to see how it will be embraced beyond the local markets.
“I think this year it's more about the rivalry and the passion, the dislike I guess, that these two franchises have historically for each other,” said Collins. “I think it's good old hockey. We'll see how much that resonates behind Philly and New York.”