For the next two weeks, hockey fans around the globe will turn their attention to Sochi for the Olympics, where the best players in the world will congregate to represent their countries on the world’s biggest stage. While that means that we will be treated to some great games and intense rivalries, it also means that the NHL will be out of commission as players like Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Zach Parise and Henrik Lundqvist will be busy suiting up for their home nations rather than their professional clubs. In an effort to get fans back into the swing of things, the NHL will put on the final two of its outdoor showcases on March 1 and 2. The Chicago Blackhawks will host the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Chicago Bears’ Soldier Field on the 1, and the Vancouver Canucks will host the Ottawa Senators at BC Place on the 2.
While the attempt at loading up on outdoor games to get casual fans excited about the NHL makes sense, I believe that the league has overdone it a bit this year. The original intention of the outdoor games was to add some novelty to the six-month-long season by taking the pros back outside to play the game in its original element. The Winter Classic was a once-per-season phenomenon that was meant to celebrate the roots of hockey, packing thousands of fans into football and baseball stadiums than could possibly fit in any of the 30 hockey arenas around the league. By introducing what they have coined the “NHL Stadium Series,” the NHL has added four additional outdoor games to go along with the Winter Classic and the Heritage Classic, the latter is relatively scaled down and pits two storied Canadian franchises against one another. The Canucks/Senators matchup in March will be the third Heritage Classic in history, following the inaugural game in 2003 in Edmonton and the second game in 2011 in Calgary.
Watching an outdoor hockey game is certainly more entertaining than watching an indoor one; that much is pretty universally agreed upon. What I see as being the issue, however, is that instituting the Stadium Series takes away from the uniqueness and excitement of the Winter Classic. To many fans, the past couple NHL seasons have revolved around two things: the playoffs and the Winter Classic. Constant media coverage and HBO’s series “24/7: Road to the NHL Winter Classic” cause tremendous anticipation and excitement for fans months before the actual event takes place. With five or six random “Stadium Series” games sprinkled around the Winter Classic, that excitement is bound to diminish a little over time. Throwing in two Rangers games at Yankees Stadium, one at Dodgers Stadium and one at Soldier Field simply dilutes the whimsy and overall attraction of the Winter Classic. While more teams are allowed the opportunity for a taste of outdoor hockey action with the Stadium Series, I don’t believe it is beneficial for the health of the NHL – and especially the Winter Classic – in the long run.
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