Cash grab? Maybe, but adding outdoor games is smart
Outdoor games (continued)
You know that phone company commercial where four kids around a table tell an adult what they would do with some saved money and one girl suggests that she'd buy an island made out of candy? Then the rest chime in with what this island might be like: Sand made out of sugar, water made out of soda, the shower made out of hot fudge. The animals? They'd be made out of candy, too.
It's cute because the kids' imaginations have no limitations. Adults, now, we understand limits and believe too much of a good thing is no good, even if -- secretly -- we'd love to have our own islands of candy, too.
That, to me, describes the thinking behind those who have objected this week to the NHL's apparent plan for more outdoor games. Having one, the Winter Classic, is great, they say. More than one? Too much of a good thing.
Maybe it's the kid in me, but I think more than one is great. I don't find it excessive and I believe the added games make lots of sense.
First of all, if the league does this right, not all of these outdoor games will be the same. There will still be only one Winter Classic that features two high-profile teams with a national telecast on a holiday.
That's the contest that everyone in the sport and everyone who is a hockey fan has fallen in love with, not just because it's in a unique environment, but because it extends the celebratory feelings of your New Year's Eve party into the next day. Whatever skepticism revolves around the Winter Classic as a live event -- and let's face it: You can't see the ice very well from most of the stadium seats and you've paid a lot for that privilege -- is offset by the amazing festival atmosphere surrounding the game, something that has to be experienced to be fully appreciated, as I wrote after the 2012 Winter Classic in Philadelphia.
The five additional fresh air games being discussed for next season have their own logic, their own raison d'être and uniqueness, apart from being played under the open sky.
The Rangers-Devils and Rangers-Islanders games at Yankee Stadium on Jan. 26 and 29 are not really national in scope. They're more for the region's fans. Winter Classics tend to be about passionate loyalty for the home team, but each of these two contests in the Bronx will feature a pair of home teams and divided loyalties in the Yankees' big ballpark.
They will also give hockey a major presence in the world's biggest media market at a time when the upcoming Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey would otherwise be the only big news in town. I find that pretty shrewd.
The fun idea of a Southern California outdoor game between the Kings and Ducks on Jan. 25, not far from the palm and olive trees outside Dodger Stadium, is a locally-driven event as well, and something of a curiosity considering that it will be the first time that the NHL has tried this event in the Sun Belt since the very first go at it -- a 1991 preseason game in Las Vegas between the Kings and Rangers.
That L.A. date can also fill the TV void in the NFL off-week between the Conference Championships and the Super Bowl, where the NHL would normally stage its All-Star Game, but won't next season because of the Sochi Olympics.
The Penguins-Blackhawks game at Soldier Field on March 1 helps reintroduce the NHL after the break for the Winter Games, which will have concluded the previous weekend. This tilt will feature two powerhouse teams facing off against each other and the elements. College basketball's NCAA Tournament will still be a couple of weeks away, and hockey's other competition will be spring training baseball and the NBA's regular season. That makes this something of an open window for the NHL. Who knows? The Soldier Field game could turn out to be a reprise of this year's upcoming Stanley Cup Final.
Then there's the Senators-Canucks matchup on March 2, another re-introductory game that also appears to be a renewal of the Heritage Classic, featuring two Canadian-based teams. The first of those games, the 2003 contest between the Canadiens and Oilers in frosty Edmonton, spawned the idea of the Winter Classic. The home country of this sport shouldn't be shut out when it comes to seeing the world's best players bring the game back to its roots.
Every one of next year's additional games is in a major market, and designed to have the biggest possible impact after a lockout that took this year's Winter Classic off the schedule. It's the league's version of a make-up call.
Do six outdoor games constitute overkill? Some think so, including Jesse Spector of The Sporting News. But even he has to admit, "Sure, the games will sell out, and sure, they still will look great on television," so how bad could the idea be? He does worry, however, "about whether people will actually watch all six of those spectacles."
Well, they're not exactly intended to be clones of the Winter Classic party, so why worry about the audience size compared to what the New Year's Day game draws?
In 2009, after the Wrigley Field game between the Red Wings and Blackhawks, some suggested that the NHL should not play the Winter Classic each season, that doing so would ruin its special nature. At the time, I wondered if the league should stage more, not fewer, outdoor games, writing, "If this one game merely rotates around the NHL on a yearly basis, lots of fans — and players — will never have the chance to have the outdoor experience. Yes, it might diminish the New Year's Day event, but there will always be something special about an NHL outdoor game on Jan. 1 amidst the college football bowl games with hungover fans glued to their flatscreens....
"Give the Wings and Hawks a rematch in Detroit's Comerica Park. Let the Flyers and Penguins play annually outdoors in Pa., one year in Philly, the next year in Pitt, and maybe one year in the middle of the state. Why not? Why shouldn't the Habs and Leafs or Leafs and Sens or Leafs and Sabres play an outdoor game every season? Or the Flames and Oilers have an annual Alberta Classic? These games could be annual matches that fans would anticipate from the day the schedule is released.
"There's probably not a team or fan base in the NHL that wouldn't want to take part in an outdoor game. Don't think fans of the Dallas Stars would travel north to Denver or Minnesota for an outdoor game against the Avs or Wild? Think again."
There's business sense to additional outdoor games as well. To some, it's only a cash grab. But as TSN's Bob McKenzie -- who admits he's part of the overkill crowd -- noted on Wednesday over TSN Radio 690, "If I was the National Hockey League and had a business to run, if I was the National Hockey League Players Association and I just went through a lockout where my share of the pie got substantially reduced, I'd be doing anything I could to make that pie bigger....You can say, 'Wow, this is ridiculous; no one is going to want all these games.'...(But) there's not a single one of those venues that we saw listed that, if you think about that market, that the people in that market and the people who follow those teams won't be clamoring to buy expensive tickets or merchandise. Is it a cash grab? Sure. But are you serving fans in those markets? Yes."
Hockey Night In Canada's Elliotte Friedman saw yet another aspect to the business side of the increased outdoor schedule in a story on the CBC's website, writing, "Financially, it's a windfall. Estimate approximately $30 million US in hockey-related revenue per game. So we're talking $180 million for 2013-14, half of which goes to the players. There is added incentive for them: the cap drops to $64.3 million next season. That could create an increase in the players' escrow payments. Nothing aggravates them more. This 'Outdoor Game Cash Extravaganza' decreases the likelihood of a stiffer escrow. That is powerful motivation to agree."
And there are other reasons for the players to agree, a big one being they want the experience of playing outdoors in these large stadiums.
Friedman admitted that much when he voiced some other concerns. He worries that the Pittsburgh-Chicago and Ottawa-Vancouver games come too quickly after the Feb. 23 conclusion of the Olympics, six and seven days respectively. These are four teams that could have a lot of players in Sochi and they will want to play in these outdoor games. To Friedman, "It seems overly risky to send those players halfway across the world, bring them back and thrust them into unfamiliar surroundings. Every single one of them will want to play in both the Olympics and the outdoor game. I get that. But someone should be asking, 'Is this really a good idea?'"
I could be wrong, but I think six and seven days is certainly enough time to get even those few players back -- remember, many of them will be on teams that have been eliminated long before the gold medal game -- and re-acclimated to the NHL. If NHLers can go through the compressed schedule they've endured this season, with frequent four-game weeks, those who play in the medal games should be OK with the travel and a day or two off before their teams play outdoors.
Despite his objections, Friedman admits, "If you go to an outdoor game and don't get caught up in the excitement, you're kind of soulless."
As much as we tend to view some -- or even much -- of what the league does with suspicion, it has gotten the outdoor games right and it does them well.
Playing more of them really is sort of like having your own island made out of candy.