Even a scripted Classic has charm; Devils top first-half surprises
The Winter Classic is hailed as a return to roots, but it's mostly a marketing tool
Getting Sidney Crosby into the first Winter Classic in 2008 was crucial for the NHL
Did you really think the Devils or Avalanche would be this good by mid-season?
There's a sense that the NHL's Winter Classic outdoor game, which captures the attention of even non-hockey fans, is sure to move from novelty to boring, staid, or one-trick pony that's run its very limited course. It's mostly a media opinion and it's wrong -- so wrong, that to even put forth the argument is a fair indication that the Classic's critics have lost touch with their audience.
I can say this for a variety of reasons, but the most obvious is the simplest to understand: fans just love this thing. We're not talking about how NBC paints the game as a "return to roots" and the way hockey "used to be played." The beauty and strength of the outdoor game comes from the fact that it's different and special, particularly for fans in the host city. The allure for the national TV audience -- the majority of which wouldn't watch a regular NHL broadcast if you put a beer to their heads -- is that this isn't just another game.
What started out as an oddity -- "and now for something completely different" -- has morphed into something completely special. It's the cultural equivalent of the All-Star Game but with real effort, not a don't-get-hurt, go-through-the-motions affair that leaves true fans depressed and non-fans wondering why hockey appeals to anyone.
The outdoor game is hockey away from cookie-cutter arenas and the sameness of the long 82-game march to the most meaningful part of the season. It's complete with unusual venues and factors that can't always be controlled (weather, for instance) and if it happens in your town, well, then it's a (perhaps) once-in-a-lifetime experience, an "I was there" moment that fans have come to embrace on a par with a playoff elimination game or the first time their team makes it to the Stanley Cup Final.
If I have any criticism of the Winter Classic, it's that it has strayed just a bit too far from its roots.
The Heritage Classic, held in 2003 in Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium, a facility for the local Canadian Football League team, is mostly thought of as the trial format for bringing the outdoor game to U.S. sites like Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, NY, Wrigley Field in Chicago, and now Fenway Park in Boston. But the view from here is that Edmonton's effort was still the best. It wasn't just due to the sense of newness. Kevin Lowe, now president of the Oilers but then their GM, conceived the idea and saw it as not just an indoor game transferred outdoors, but a festival of hockey.
Unfortunately, the Heritage Classic is best remembered for its unrelenting cold, but the joy wasn't just a close and reasonably well-played match between the Oilers and Montreal Canadiens, it was in the old-timers game that preceded it. That one showcased Wayne Gretzky's one-and-only post-retirement performance, and it was in the city that launched him to greatness. It featured a still NHL-active Mark Messier playing alongside the Great One and included several of the most memorable ex-Canadiens.
To see living legends playing outdoors and even manning shovels to clear snow off the ice during stoppages in play was something that went far beyond slick marketing and carefully executed "showcase" moments. It was a connection moment, a largely unscripted event that brought fans and players together in a way that both could understand.
Maybe you had to be there (I was) to get it, but it was real, and every person in the stadium felt it. Since then, the outdoor game has gotten just a bit too slick. The first Winter Classic, in 2008, was a snow-globe moment for television and TV covered it very well, but it was also carefully orchestrated to introduce Sidney Crosby to an American audience that knew next to nothing about him. Crosby delivered, scoring a shootout-winner in the snow against the other emerging star in that contest: Sabres goalie Ryan Miller. Sources told SI.com back then that Pittsburgh wasn't Buffalo's first choice of opponent and that perhaps nearby Toronto or another Northeast division rival would have better fit the bill, but the NHL wanted its Crosby moment and, in hindsight, that wasn't a bad decision.
It was that way in Wrigley Field as well: an Original Six showcase meeting between the back-from-oblivion Blackhawks and the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings. The Wings won, as they should have, but the Hawks impressed and sent a message that they were indeed on the rise. A great marketing moment for Chicago and the league, but the event itself didn't quite measure up to the good-feeling games in Edmonton or the snow bowl in Buffalo.
We'll reserve final judgment until after this year's game, but it's difficult to get excited about a Boston Bruins-Philadelphia Flyers contest be it indoors or out. The Bruins have struggled much of the season due to injuries and the trade of Phil Kessel, and the Flyers have been in a state of collapse for much of December. That's hardly a compelling contest, but for Boston fans there's the magic of a rare experience, and the TV audience will have the allure of Fenway Park with its legendary Green Monster that is as iconic as the stadium itself. For a sports fan, hockey aficionado of not, that's compelling enough and worth the commitment of time and interest.
The 2009 Winter Classic may not prove to be the best outdoor game ever, but if you go or watch, it's still going to be a memorable hockey moment. The game won't get old even if it isn't quite as fresh and spontaneous as it was in the beginning.
First half surprises
People use the phrase "it's still early in the season," but this weekend marks the halfway point for most teams. On the plus side are the New Jersey Devils -- first in the East and, as of this writing, first overall -- and the Colorado Avalanche in the West.
We never expect the Devils to fall far from the playoff pack. (Truth be told, we never expect them not to make the playoffs, a tribute to GM Lou Lamoriello, who always seems to find a way.) But to be in first at this point is quite the accomplishment. A new-old coach (Jacques Lemaire), a recast lineup in the wake of the usual free-agent defections, push from their minor-league affiliate and, of course, the steady play of the incomparable Marty Brodeur confirm what we always believed about the Devils and their program. As Dennis Green once famously said about the Chicago Bears: "They are who we thought they were."
It's quite a different story with the Avs, who have remained in one of the top three or four spots in the Western Conference for most of the first half. Colorado was picked by many to miss the playoffs and, by some, to be the worst team in the West, especially given the retirement of Captain Clutch, Joe Sakic. The Avs might not have the flash of their glory teams when the Stanley Cup was an annual possibility, but they get by with hard work, great goaltending, and a "we'll show you" attitude that is refreshing.
We'll offer up a nod to the Phoenix Coyotes as well, but their success is not quite as surprising as the Avs'. Look back a year ago around this time and Wayne Gretzky had the Yotes in playoff contention. They faded under the weight of expectations and inexperience, but GM Don Maloney had the financially cursed franchise heading in the right direction. Bringing in Dave Tippett in the wake of Gretzky's resignation was a good move and he's made improvements, but the Coyotes are where they should be for now. It's something you could see coming a season ago.
In terms of surprising disappointments, the Carolina Hurricanes top the list: last overall with just 10 wins after a stirring playoff run last spring. The New York Rangers also have disappointed, although that's to be expected given the length of time that GM Glen Sather has been at the helm and trying to get it right. The Oilers were expecting more with a revamped front office and coaching department, but their problem seems to be the quality of talent on hand. There simply isn't enough, and the players who are skilled lack size (something that has again become increasingly important in the NHL) or they come up short in two-way play and, especially, in goal.
The race is on
Looking ahead, the Olympics will overshadow a great deal of regular-season interest until nearly the end of February, but it appears that the scoring race and battle for MVP consideration will be tight. Alex Ovechkin of the Capitals has started his push by racking up multiple-point games in recent outings, but he hasn't truly distanced himself from the pack. History shows that players who participate in the Olympics often have an unsteady finish to the regular season.
San Jose's Joe Thornton has been consistently good and is likely to challenge for the points crown. There's an outside chance that New York's Marian Gaborik and Vancouver's Henrik Sedin could also be in the mix. Ovechkin is being matched in the goal-scoring department by Gaborik, Crosby, and San Jose's Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley. What's also intriguing is that there could be a goaltender or two in contention for the Hart Trophy as Buffalo's Miller and Phoenix's Ilya Bryzgalov are having statement seasons and Brodeur appears once again to be in Vezina and perhaps even Hart form.
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