Another successful outdoor tilt gives NHL its signature event
CHICAGO -- Going, going, gone. Home run. Touch 'em all, NHL.
Forgive the obvious baseball allusion, but from the cool retro uniforms worn by the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks, to the 40,818 fans bundled up and jammed into venerable Wrigley Field belting out the national anthem en masse, to the old-style black fedoras sported by the Detroit coaching staff, to the wildly entertaining game itself, the 2009 Winter Classic was another red-letter day for the league.
For the second straight year, the NHL has taken its game outdoors, and this success at Wrigley virtually guarantees the Winter Classic will become an annual event and the National Hockey League will carve its own place on the sporting calendar with its Jan. 1 hockey lovefest.
For a league that continues to wage an uphill battle to establish itself as a pan-American sport, it has hit on a signature event that should continue to draw the casual fan for years to come, regardless of where the game goes.
The Stanley Cup playoffs will always be the league's most dramatic event, but by its very nature, interest narrows as teams are eliminated. In a surprisingly short period of time, the Winter Classic has become something that fans, regardless of allegiance, will be drawn to, whether it's the atmosphere, the drama or the total buy-in from players.
"This is what we hoped it would be," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said not long after the Red Wings beat the Blackhawks by a 6-4 count. "It's unique in the way that it takes the game back to its roots. It's unique in the way the players react to it because it's so special to be there on the ice.
"It's something that we know can be a special part of our game if we do it right."
Credit the league for taking a quantum leap forward after the critical success of last year's first Winter Classic in Buffalo.
COO John Collins, a longtime executive with the National Football League before joining the NHL before last season, described the Buffalo game as being mostly about answering this simple operational question: Could the NHL build a rink outdoors that would allow teams to play a competitive game?
The answer was yes, but in many ways, the league got lucky.
Because of the tight timeline to get the ice surface ready after the end of the Buffalo Bills' regular season, the ice wasn't nearly as good as it was this year. By the time Sidney Crosby scored to end the game in a shootout, the ice was a mess. Although it looked great for the record television audience in the United States, the league was fortunate the game ended when it did.
"We cut it too close," Bettman admitted.
In the intervening months, the NHL spent about $1 million to purchase a portable refrigeration unit that improved the ice-making process dramatically.
"It was probably better than it is in some of our rinks," Bettman quipped.
The players lauded the quality of the ice, and instead of the dump-and-chase game the snow and ice demanded, fans were treated to a heavy-hitting, fast-paced game Thursday.
Along with making the on-ice product better, the NHL also set about refining the event itself. This year, there was an opportunity for the media to skate on the ice, which created more good news surrounding the event, as well as helping the ice mature. The team's families were much more involved this year, and Detroit coach Mike Babcock pointed to the family skate after practice Wednesday as one of the highlights of the event.
Sponsorship support was strong with a series of national sponsors coming on board in spite of the economic downturn. Sales of Winter Classic merchandise were expected to double from last year, even though the crowd was about 45 percent larger in Buffalo. Some 240,000 requests to purchase tickets were made for the Wrigley game. Even the Blackhawks, who blew a 3-1 lead in Thursday's game, were unanimous in believing they were part of something special.
"The fans were great," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "The building was excited. It was a special place to be and play, and certainly we are not happy with the way it ended up, but it was a privilege to be here today."
Bettman predicted that the number of teams interested in hosting an outdoor game would grow and that the insistence with which teams would pursue the event likely will grow, as well.
The league is expected to seize on the successes of the first two Winter Classics to establish a bid process not unlike that which determines hosting the All-Star Game and the entry draft. Teams and cities will have to put together a plan outlining why they deserve to host the game.
The new ice-making equipment ensures that future outdoor games could, in theory, be held just about anywhere. That said, don't expect this game to show up any time soon in Nashville or Atlanta -- or in Canada, although for different reasons. The NHL likely will keep the game in wintry climes, at least for the immediate future, as that helps with the optics of the game. It also will be looking to select locations that will generate their own set of story lines and provide a natural hook to those casual fans that league officials believe are important to continuing to grow the sport in the United States.
Cynics will suggest it will be hard to duplicate the drama of having a game played at Wrigley Field, an iconic sporting venue. Bettman noted the importance of the venue himself.
"It was a very special day for us in large part because of where we were," he said.
But there are a lot of places that would provide interesting story lines.
Old Yankee Stadium was the original choice for this year's game before logistical problems paved the way for the Wrigley game. New Yankee Stadium would be a natural choice, perhaps as early as next Jan. 1.
How about the Boston Bruins, another Original Six team enjoying a significant renaissance along the lines of what's been seen in Chicago, hosting an outdoor game at Fenway Park?
Look for the NHL to closely consider staying in baseball stadiums as opposed to NFL facilities, even if the number of fans would be far greater and the sight lines in baseball facilities aren't necessarily ideal. Baseball facilities don't pose as many scheduling headaches, and the field is flat as opposed to crowned, which was the case at Ralph Wilson Stadium a year ago.
Regardless of where the next Winter Classic ends up, watch for the events surrounding the game to grow and mature. Having other hockey events connected to the NHL game -- a college game or high school tournament -- could be part of the lineup.
One of the byproducts of the success at Wrigley is that the league can now withstand the inevitable disaster that will befall one of these events. If, as we expect will be the case, there is going to be one of these games every Jan. 1, at some point Mother Nature is going to give the league an elbow to the head. At some point, it will rain or snow so much that the game will be canceled. But instead of its being a black eye for the league, that will only add to the mythology that will grow around the Winter Classic. That is the measure of the success of the Wrigley effort.
Another potential ripple effect will be the fate of the NHL All-Star Game. The game, an important corporate event for the league, struggles to be relevant as it is, and as the Winter Classic grows as an NHL signature event, there might come a time when the game simply fades away.
After a day like Thursday, it's hard to imagine anyone missing it.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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