01/03/2008 3:34 PM
THE FAR SIDE OF THE POND
Waking to a Wondrous Winter Classic
By Chad Huebner
Usually, my New Year’s Day activities consist of only a few basic things: watching the bowl games, vegging on the couch and maybe ordering a pizza if I don’t feel too hung over from the night before (Remember kids: Beer before liquor, never sicker; liquor before beer, never fear. I just wish I would do what I say/write sometimes).
When what to my wonder eyes did appear, but an outdoor NHL game to kick off the New Year.
I fault the NHL for scheduling such an interesting game on such a bloated sports day. There were better choices for dates than this one. Even though the Winter Classic was played at the same stadium the Buffalo Bills play, couldn’t the NHL find a date in December that didn’t conflict with the Bills’ schedule? Or how about schedule the game for Saturday, January 5, as the NBC is already broadcasting two NFL playoff games, why not kick off the big sports day with a hockey game?
Still, I was probably one of millions who took time out of their bowl-watching schedules (or really just changed channels between commercials) to catch an outdoor NHL game. There was one in Edmonton in 2003, but that wasn’t shown in the U.S. live. You know the country where most of the NHL teams are housed.
Anyway, despite the snow and the ice problems, the NHL managed to pull this stunt off, without having anyone injured or succumb to frostbite. It certainly was an incentive for the Buffalo Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins not to draw a penalty, because the penalty box looked like the loneliest, coldest place on Earth outside of Antarctica.
Buffalo is one of the perfect places in the U.S. to have this event (Minnesota is the other one, but I’ll get to that more later on) because of its location. Not only did the NHL have the draw of the local Sabre fans, but they also had the Penguin fans braving icy, snowy roads to get to Buffalo and the barrage of Canadian fans right over the border. The stadium holds about 75,000 fully packed, but I’m sure they could’ve drawn 85,000 at a larger stadium, because at least 10,000 fans watched the game on a big projection screen right outside the Sabres’ stadium, HSBC Arena.
So the most obvious question is should the NHL do this every year?
I say, why not? Of course there’ll be a chance for player injuries, but through trial and error, we can come up with ice surfaces that can be played on any type of turf. Hey, it’s the 21st century, and while we don’t have a man on Mars, we can probably concoct some sort of flexible ice surface, right?
And if it snows on game day, maybe just reschedule the game a day later, sort of like a rainout in baseball. I’m sure the fans wouldn’t mind waiting just one more day for such an incredible event. Sure it was partly to stay warm on New Year’s Day, but the fans were rocking and rolling during the game, even going so far as to sing a few bars of a Bon Jovi song during a timeout. “Whoaaa, were halfway the-ere, whoa-oooh! Living on a prayer!”
(Yeah, it’s a bad song, but man, those 75,000 or so belted out those lines because they were excited about the game. Even though the Sabres lost on a shootout, the fans were an agreeable and enthusiastic bunch. “Let’s go Buf-fa-lo!” was belted out a bunch of times during the game.)
My ultimate dream is to see all 30 NHL teams host at least one outdoor game each year. Even the warm weather teams like L.A., Phoenix and Tampa Bay, because, again, the technology for having a frozen ice surface in mild to warm conditions is possible. Not too many people remember this, but the 2003 game in Edmonton is not the first outdoor NHL game. Go back to the 1991 preseason, and the L.A. Kings and the New York Rangers played a game on the grounds of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Temp at the start of the game was 85 degrees, but they still played. In fact, weather wasn’t so much of a concern as was the number of crickets that hopped on to the ice. There were a lot of Jiminys cut in two by skates on that day, let me tell you.
Okay, so maybe my ultimate dream is just that, a dream (but still pretty sweet, especially if you get Kate Beckinsale and Kim Kardashian as ice girls), but a more realistic venture is just having outdoor games in cold weather places like Buffalo, Minnesota, Detroit and Chicago. The Sun Times ran a picture in their sports section on January 3, showing a ‘Hawks-Redwings game superimposed on Soldier Field. If that doesn’t make the average ‘Hawks fan salivate (and I have a bit of drool running down one side, which would be a bit embarrassing if was out and about) I dunno what would.
But the most likely scenario is to have just one outdoor game a year. Aside from the obvious draw of the Canadian cities, the next likely place to have a Winter Classic has to be Minnesota. Heck, they probably don’t even need to build a rink, just put a couple of nets on a lake or a stream. Maybe throw in some sort of ice-fishing contest just to make it more like everyday life for the Minnesotans. I can see it now: “Gaborik takes the puck up the middle. . . he shoots, HE SCORES! And he hooks a big Walleye! Aw jeez, Bob, that’s some good eating!”
(And yes, all I know about Minnesota dialect I picked up from the movie “Fargo”.)
There are risks with doing this on a yearly basis, and some say it’s too gimmicky of an idea. Last time I checked, the NHL needs all the help it can get to pull in more and more fans, so if it takes a gimmick to do it, than so be it.
All I know is, watching the game on TV, seeing the action, seeing how the conditions affected the players and the ice, seeing how pumped up the fans were (even though half of them probably couldn’t see the puck from where they were sitting), I wanted to be there too, instead of my usual perch on the couch on New Year’s Day.
Remember, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org for anything on your mind, hopefully hockey related. Best responses and/or questions will be answered publicly.