By: Rachel Buck
Sports Information Assistant
Warning: if you’re not a hockey fan, you may want to stop reading this post.
Alright, with that out of the way let’s talk hockey. Those of you who know me are aware that hockey is by far my favorite sport. I talk and watch the game obsessively, and try to share my love of the game with as many people as I can.
Alas, even with all of my talking (which I do a lot), hockey still struggles to appear on the radar as a major mainstream sport in the United States. Obviously more of a regional game, its followings in the Northeast and Midwest are much larger than anywhere else. But it seems as though the NHL is trying to change that appeal…in ways other than placing a team in a desolate warm-weather climate.
Just over a week ago, the NHL hosted its fourth-annual Winter Classic outdoor game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. The contest pitted rivals (well, let’s clarify: a loose rivalry mostly fueled by the NHL’s insistence on comparing Alex Ovechkin and Sydney Crosby, despite their significantly differentiating styles of play, positions and personalities) the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Minus the terrible NBC commentary from Pierre McGuire and Mike Milbury and some questionable intermission promotions, the Winter Classic lived up to it’s expectations: a competitive and gritty game, showcased nationwide during primetime. Even under such bright lights, it maintained quaintness about the game and its outdoor roots for so many players – past and present.
For those of us who grew up skating on the ice of frozen ponds and other outdoor surfaces, it brings back fond memories of youth, when you couldn’t wait for the ice to be thick enough on the pond so dad could drive the plow and clear a spot. Granted, the surface wasn’t polished because we didn’t have access (or time) to water to spray down and even the surface, but it got you outside. If you wanted to skate on a smooth surface you would go to one of the many rinks maintained by the city or the indoor sheets. But if you were just looking to skate or play small shinny hockey close to home, it was the best day of the year.
I had originally planned on attending the Winter Classic, but due to unforeseen circumstances with my travel companion I did not make the trip. But I have seen outdoor hockey, and the experience is everything that makes hockey, hockey. In 2006 the University of Wisconsin-Madison Badgers faced the Ohio State Buckeyes at Lambeau Field. Lambeau has an amazing aura standing on its own, but partner that with 10-degree temperatures, great college hockey and amazing Sconnie tailgating and it was one of those experiences I’ll never forget. The college world has been playing outdoors for years, and the NHL has finally caught on to the success of those games. For a traditionalist and huge hockey fan like myself, bringing the game outdoors on a consistent basis (let’s all remember the failed attempt to play in Vegas in 1991 and the 2003 Heritage Classic in Edmonton) is one of the best decisions the NHL has made.
On the other side of the rink for those who aren’t big hockey fans, the outdoor game has helped put the NHL on national, mainstream sports radars, if only for a day. Ratings for the Winter Classic were released last week and they were one of the highest hockey ratings ever – even surpassing past Stanley Cup Finals. While the NBC platform may not necessarily be the best for the regular hockey fan (I had to turn the radio feed on around the fourth time Milbury called a wrist shot a forehand) it is definitely a great access point for the general sports fan that wants to learn more about the game. Giving the game a national spotlight on a day usually reserved for big college football games made it seem even more accessible. I would like to think that if the league can continue to produce quality matchups with great venues and a national audience more and more people might gain an interest in the sport (ah, the eternal optimist in me).
The NHL also got it right when they worked with HBO to produce the 24/7 Penguins/Capitals Road to the Winter Classic four-part series on the network. Instead of placing a similar series on the fledgling NHL Network, they allowed a major television power into the arena, giving fans a glimpse into the world of hockey.
And was it eye opening. Everyone expects explicative language to be used in the locker room and on the ice, but the way that Caps Head Coach Bruce Boudreau dropped f-bombs would make even Rex Ryan rosy in the cheeks. Everything that happened on and off the ice was fair game. Fans saw players lose teeth, have a root canal during intermission and go back on the ice for the next period. They also saw them on a personal level, interacting with friends and family off the ice (including Ovechkin enjoying a homemade meal prepared by his mom). The grit that hockey players possess was fully demonstrated, and I believe it gave people a better appreciation of how difficult this sport can be to play and how the guys who play it are some of the toughest athletes. Even “squeaky-clean” Crosby had a scene where he dropped numerous f-bombs to the ref after he was called for a penalty.
Next up is the reformatted All-Star Game format. If you haven’t heard, this year’s ASG will not be the typical East-West format, but instead a throwback to elementary school gym class. Basically, after fans select a “top line”, hockey ops and general managers from around the league will complete the 42-man roster. Two players will then be chosen from the participants to serve as team captains, and pick their teams based not on conference, but rather who they want to compete with on the ice (making the last guy picked feel like the kid who was always picked last in gym class). Not only will the captains pick their teams for the game on Sunday, but they will also select the matchups for the skills competition.
I’ll admit I’m managing multiple fantasy hockey teams right now…and not doing too shabby. This format makes the uber-nerdy fantasy player in me excited to see the outcome. Could it turn out as poorly as my team in 2007 that finished dead last even though I thought I had an amazing team? Sure. Superstars playing together don’t always equal success (*cough*New Jersey Devils*cough*). But I can’t help but get excited thinking about the drama that will surround the player draft (Crosby didn’t pick Malkin? The Sedin brothers are on opposite teams?). Will players pick teammates because it will assist with their comfort level on the ice? Will style of play be a factor? What about whether or not to pick a divisional/conference foe? So many questions! That excitement is exactly what might be able to attract the casual hockey fan, allowing the best of the best to choose who they want to play, and waiting for the final result of where everyone falls (and the fallout of those choices). Right now I’m thinking the draft may be more exciting than the game, but we shall see.
Alas, even with so many good things, there is some bad. My one problem with the NHL right now is the fact that they moved the 2011 Heritage Classic in Calgary, outdoors. It’s almost like the NHL saying, “we’re sorry we haven’t put a Winter Classic outside in Canada yet, so here’s your turn.” If the league continues to add outdoor games to its schedule (yes, one more game does make a difference) I think there will be a slight loss in the interest of the outdoor game, a loss of the mystique and honor for the players and fans in attendance. There is such thing as ‘too much of a good thing’…keep the fans wanting more and they will keep coming back year after year.
Will hockey ever be as big as the NFL, MLB or NBA? Even the most optimistic hockey fan doesn’t think so, but I think they are making some steps in the right direction. Even though the NHL may keep me (and other die-hards) from seeing a Minnesota-Dallas matchup in the State of Hockey, a Montreal-Toronto clash that gives our neighbors to the North a fair shake with a storied rivalry or a sequence of Original Six matchups, the NHL needs to make sure they keep the marquis matchups coming.
On a random endnote: a few blog posts ago I wrote about many of the superstitions that I have with my favorite teams. Well, it turns out I’m not the only person who has publicized their quarks. I recently finished reading Extraordinary, Ordinary People – A Memoir of Family by Condoleezza Rice (highly recommended, by the way). In the book she mentions that when watching sports she starts on one side of the couch, and if the team does poorly she moves to the other side of the couch in the second half. Guess I’m not the only crazy one!