Winter Classic's all about the myth
The NHL's annual outdoor game is a marvel of logistics and marketing
These are packaged exercises in longing for someone else's good old days
The chasm between reality and fantasy explains why players adore the Classic
This is the NHL's Little White Lie.
At least the league better hope the so-called Winter Classic is white this year after the rainy debacle in Pittsburgh last Jan. 1. (More on that later.)
The NHL's New Year's Day Game (Except If The NFL Is Playing Because We Don't Mess With Those Bad Boys) offers much to admire -- even if none of it is, you know, related to the actual playing of hockey.
The outdoor game is a technological and logistical marvel, a triumph of ingenuity and engineering. It is a marketing machine for a league that, post-lockout, seems driven by events. And in the jammed sporting bazaar, it is the most powerful an attention-grabber that hockey has to offer outside of the Olympics, a game that has induced a surprising number of rheumy eyes to tune in.
Hockey on New Year's Day -- or this year in the vicinity of New Year's Day, sort of like an Ales Kotalik slap shot that has been aimed at the net -- is now part of America's hangover cure. If you are so disposed, you can get hair of the dog and hair of Scott Hartnell. In these uncertain times, you can't hope for much more than that.
So let us praise icemaker Dan Craig, czar-of-all-events Don Renzulli, and COO John Collins for making Game No. 569 on your NHL calendar matter more to America than the other 1,229 games. Aided by hot air pumped by the sweet talkers on NBC, the NHL's loyal broadcast partner that will offer nary a discouraging word about this al fresco confection, and by the public relations phenomenon that is HBO's 24/7 Road to the Winter Classic, hype will far outstrip hypothermia.
Before gnawing on the, cough, Winter Classic, 24/7 deserves a closer look. There is, of course, nothing quite real about the edited reality of reality TV. Rangers coach John Tortorella, an inveterate truth teller, caught the essence of it nicely in the first episode when he accused a player of essentially playing to the microphones and cameras. So, question everything.
When the Rangers' Mike Rupp, a particular favorite of mine, fought the Devils' Cam Janssen off the opening faceoff on Dec. 20, the thought occurred that at least one of the pugilists was angling for face time in the series that is a viewing staple to almost every player in the league. And aren't you convinced that Steve Ott impeded Flyers coach Peter Laviolette's path to the dressing room in Dallas one night later strictly for show?
(Incidentally, the best moment through the first two episodes was not Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, the Carl Sagan of the Crease, theatrically ruminating on the size of the universe, but Tortorella's customary tense expression softening into a warm glow when discussing a 10-year-old Rangers fan with cerebral palsy. That you can't fake.)
OK, where were we? Yes, the White Lie. The premise of the outdoor game, introduced by Michigan State and Michigan in East Lansing in October 2001 and imitated so widely that it is now as fresh as a Monica Lewinsky blue dress joke, represents hockey's creation myth, but it is not the reality of this group of NHL players. Not even close.
This group of NHLers never played hockey outdoors. It played at hockey, a little shinny on a rink set up in a city park or maybe on a suitable pond, but never an actual game, one with two points in the balance -- unless the players in question were, say, the Flyers, who have already attended one of these chilly clambakes at Fenway Park against the Bruins in 2010.
These are packaged exercises in longing for someone else's good old days. Indeed, you might have trouble finding a current NHL player who has ever played a meaningful game outdoors. Anaheim defenseman Toni Lydman, 34, played some outdoor league games in Finland. When he was nine. Maybe there are a handful of others, presumably Europeans.
I had guessed that John Paddock, a Flyers assistant general manager, who is 57 and hails from Manitoba, had done it as a boy. When I asked him early in the season, he said he hadn't. Even Paddock was part of the refrigeration generation, which is at least a half-century old. The age of formal outdoor hockey effectively ended in 1961 after the Trail (B.C.) Smoke Eaters won the world championships in Switzerland playing four of their games outdoors in Lausanne.
This chasm between reality and fantasy explains, in part, why most players adore the Winter Classic -- or at least the idea of it. Like hang gliding or Peruvian food, they get to try something they never have done before. Rather than nostalgia, this is about novelty. And coming as it does near the midpoint of the season, the outdoor game provides a nice little break from the quotidian, and some exposure (in every sense) for two apparently lucky franchises.
This all would be some harmless fun if the Winter Classic were harmless.
Last January, as you might recall every time you check a Penguins game roster, it wasn't.
Now, maybe David Steckel, then of the Capitals, would have nailed Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby with a purportedly accidental drive-by shoulder and nudged him down the foggy path to concussion in any given NHL rink. It probably could have happened anywhere on any night of the week. The fact is, it didn't. It happened in the Winter Classic. Steckel nailed Crosby at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field in conditions so wretched that you would not let a Bantam team practice in them.
The last Winter Classic should never have been played, at least not on January 1. The match, scheduled for the afternoon, was pushed back to the evening because of downpours, which obliged the teams to play in a misting rain at night even though they never had practiced under the lights. If Oilers and water don't mix, neither do Penguins and Capitals. This was a horrid showcase for the innate artistry of these teams, which prior to Christmas had played what would be perhaps the best regular-season game of 2010-11, a Pittsburgh shootout win in Washington.
As dutifully as the NHL has worked in upgrading its outdoor ice-making since the first outdoor game between the Canadiens and Oilers in Edmonton in 2003 -- the brittle ice in the sub-zero weather made pucks bounce like tennis balls that day -- not even Commissioner Gary Bettman can control the weather. When things work like they did in the Snow Globe game in Buffalo -- assuming you overlooked the numerous stoppages for clearing flakes from the ice -- the Winter Classic has undeniable charm. But there are no guarantees.
The NHL simply can't replicate the conditions in its arenas, even the laggards that don't have terrific ice. There are some aesthetic values at work. Which is visually more arresting: a rink plopped into a baseball or football stadium or a three-way passing play that can be made because the ice is smooth? That's your call. But the larger issue, as you saw last January, is workplace safety, an area that has not consumed the Players Association to a sufficient degree.
There is, of course, no stopping the spread of outdoor fever. Washington will get a game soon. New York, too. Soon the Winter Classic will cross the threshold of novelty and become a grand NHL tradition.
The whole thing makes as much sense as playing an NBA game in your old schoolyard with the bent rims and metal nets. All basketball players did that growing up, right? But this is not about "reality." This is about ratings and merchandising and selling tens of thousands of tickets.
The NHL is installing more HD video boards in Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. So even if you can't see a puck from the upper deck on a 200-by-85 foot rink in the middle of the infield -- it is, after all, one inch thick and three inches in diameter -- you can follow the game on the screen.
For the folks of the Delaware Valley, this is a splendid idea -- especially if the HD screen is in your den.