Sunday, 1 January 2017

Time For A New Gimmick

Yay for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Yay for Auston Matthews. Yay for hockey in general. Today's Centennial Classic was a thriller with the Leafs taking a three-goal lead in the third period and turning it into an overtime victory on an outdoor rink setup at Toronto's BMO Field. Excuse my sarcasm, but I wasn't excited for two non-playoff teams to meet in this game nor did I spend one single, solitary second watching this game. I'm sorry, but I just didn't care. And while the league will use all sorts of attendance and revenue numbers to point to how successful these outdoor games are, I'm done with them. All of them.

I was lucky enough to attend the Heritage Classic in Winnipeg, so I can speak from some experience here. Outdoor games started off as a unique thing on January 1 to bring more fans to the NHL through ticket sales in the selected market and via TV for those that couldn't attend. The markets chosen had good hockey histories that saw the game often played in a very historic stadium. It was unique, and it was something to look forward to every January 1.

With the announcement by Gary Bettman that the league was planning no less than three outdoor games for next season, I am officially declaring this outdoor game gimmick to be dead. It's no longer something I look forward to because it's no longer special. It seems there's one per month in the hockey world now, including three this month between the NHL and AHL. The Stadium Series games ruined the mystique and the awe, and the frequency of the games just make them another game now. It's no longer special. At all.

Watching bad teams skate on bad ice later than what was originally planned because the glare and the bad ice from the sun is a danger to the players is no longer interesting or amusing. While the hoopla surround the game is a unique experience for fans and a goldmine for the NHL, the game itself is generally bad hockey to watch. I'll no longer support the idea of these games.

Tomorrow, we'll get the St. Louis Blues hosting the Chicago Blackhawks at Busch Stadium, and I'm very certain I will not be watching. Having been at the Winnipeg Heritage Classic, I can tell you that even the best seats are comparable to sitting in the nosebleed section because of the yards of empty space around the rink that setup as far away from the fans as humanly possible. I understand the reasons for this, but hockey is an entirely better experience when the fans are pounding on the glass and mere inches of Plexiglass from their heroes sitting on the bench. There's magic when a little fan is tossed a puck over the glass by his or her favorite player. There's mystique in seeing your hockey idol fist-bump you through the glass. The outdoor games abandon all of these great moments for fans.

People in Toronto and St. Louis will talk about these games for the next year. They will be highlights for the fan experience, and that's good for the NHL. Raising your profile with local fans is an important piece of earning the market, and these events do that for the NHL, it seems. The attendance figures prove that the fans want to experience a game like this.

However, for the Maple Leafs and Red Wings who have been around for a couple of years, this is just another game on the schedule. For Blackhawks like Toews, Kane, Keith, and Seabrook, this is something they do almost annually. Ditto for Penguins like Crosby, Kunitz, Malkin, and Letang. Giroux and Simmonds have been through one of these as well. For these players, it's a new but already-seen experience as they play in different non-NHL surroundings.

Less is more when it comes to the number of outdoor games held in professional hockey annually. As a fan, I want to see something more than the same old gimmick each and every year. As PT Barnum and Walt Disney each stated, "Always leave them wanting more." The NHL would be wise to follow the meaning of this statement.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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