Winter Classic worth its risks
The idea for the Winter Classic was born on a brutally cold day in Edmonton
Expected to be a one-off, the 2003 Heritage Classic was a surprise success
Weather can affect the outcome, but the NHL needs the Winter Classic
It was through pictures that the Winter Classic was born. Not so much the scenic photographs of the backyard rinks that dot the landscape up north, but images from 2003 of a meticulously constructed rink in an Edmonton stadium. When NHL COO John Collins, an NFL guy who jumped into hockey in 2006, finally asked about the photos he'd see around the league office, photos taken in that wintry Alberta stadium, he heard the ring of opportunity.
Of course, Collins was not exactly inventing the wheel. There had been other outdoor hockey games played in the recent past -- the Cold War between Michigan State and Michigan in 2001, and an NHL exhibition game in Las Vegas, of all places, in 1993 -- but it was Canada's Heritage Classic that served as the inspiration for what has now become NHL's marquee regular season spectacle.
On that frigid Saturday in late November 2003, then-Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe rose from bed after a fretful night's sleep and took a look out of his kitchen window. The thermometer read -30 degrees Celsius. ("Cold, even by Edmonton standards," he says.) The Oilers had determined that -22 would be the threshold; playing in anything colder would just seem like punishment, not celebration.
So, of course, the reading that greeted Lowe was a bit troublesome. As he traveled to Commonwealth Stadium while the sun was rising, he saw smoke rise straight up from the chimneys around town. "That typically means it's still air and no wind," he recalls. "And that means it's a pretty cold day."
Even then, as it has been every year, weather was the wild card factor. But the temperatures eventually rose (enough) and the fans came out, booze slushies in mitten-covered hands, to watch an unforgettable hockey doubleheader: a match between Oilers and Canadiens legends followed by the two current teams in the main event -- though it didn't necessarily seem like it at the time.
"We originally planned to have the old timers game and the main game on separate days," Lowe says. "But we were really fearful that the actual game wouldn't sell as well as the old timers game. [We thought] people would go to the old timers game because you've got Gretzky, Messier, Lafleur -- it doesn't get any better than that -- and maybe they'd only want to do that once. So the likelihood was that we'd sell out Commonwealth Stadium for the old timers game and then maybe get half a stadium for the actual game."
Lo and behold, the main game was a rousing success in Edmonton, except, of course, for the final 4-3 score in favor of Montreal. But it was all seen as just a one-off, a unique celebratory event for the Oilers. Lowe knew it was a great idea, but he never imagined it would spawn anything as big as the Winter Classic. In fact, in '03, it was Edmonton that needed the blessing of the NHL to stage the event in the first place.
But that's the thing about great ideas: they can still be great ideas four years later. From Buffalo to Chicago to Boston and now Pittsburgh, the Winter Classic has quickly grown into one of the best ideas the NHL has had in a long time -- at least from a business standpoint.
Its implications for the regular season, however, could raise some interesting debate.
There's no question that outdoor games are very different from every other NHL match. One could contend that it risks compromising the integrity of a season. It may not be so much an issue for this year's contenders -- both Pittsburgh and Washington are leading their divisions -- but two points in the standings are still at stake. Look back at the last season's Philadelphia Flyers, who lost to the Bruins in overtime in the 2010 Winter Classic. Their postseason fortunes ended up hanging on a single point. If the Flyers win that Classic, as they had their two previous meetings with Boston, they're not playing for the eighth seed on the very last day of the season. Of course, the Classic in Fenway Park went off without a hitch, but the specter of a lengthy rain delay -- perhaps even in mid-game -- opens the door to the role that Mother Nature can play in influencing the outcome of a game that counts in the standings.
In end, though, it's still a small concern for a huge event that seems to bring far more upside to a league that continues to search for a firm foothold in the United States. Growing the game in the U.S. is fiercely important to the NHL, and if the Winter Classic can help in that regard, it outweighs those risks.
"It's piquing the non-hockey-fan's interest, particularly in those cities," Lowe says. "And I think that would be everybody's goal."
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