Commentary

Will outdoor games lose their luster?

Updated: February 21, 2011, 7:28 AM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

CALGARY, Alberta -- One day we'll get sick of these outdoor games, but that day isn't here yet.

Seven weeks after the Winter Classic rang up another victory for the league at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on New Year's Day, Sunday's Heritage Classic proved that, until further notice, you can't get enough of a good thing.

Adorned in throwback uniforms that certainly grabbed your attention, the Calgary Flames beat the Montreal Canadiens 4-0 in the league's sixth regular-season outdoor game. The event once again rocked even if the actual game didn't, and the NHL has patented that familiar script with yet another hugely successful outdoor foray.

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Olivier Samson Arcand/Getty ImagesA crowd of 41,022 braved the elements at McMahon Stadium for Sunday's Heritage Classic.

The Heritage lacked the buildup of this year's Winter Classic, which had HBO's brilliant "24/7" documentary series and the game's top two players as marquee attractions, but Canada's outdoor game surpassed the Jan. 1 affair in corporate sponsorship sales. That's not a typo. Canadian Tire and Tim Hortons and other major Canadian brands threw themselves at this event as if it was a Super Bowl. Or at least a Grey Cup, eh?

"Our sponsor activation and investment in this was higher than any Winter Classic we've done," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said after the game, his face reddened from braving the cold. "So ... from a fan standpoint, from all of our media platforms, from the players' experience and from our business partners, this was a terrific, terrific event for us."

It brings the NHL to an important crossroads with its outdoor game adventure, and the momentum suggests there's only one way it will go. As we reported Saturday, the league and its governors have privately entertained the thought of staging as many as three to four outdoor games a season.

Crazy? Perhaps. But given the insatiable appetite from the corporate community and fans, it's clear what the NHL might be thinking: Yes, the Jan. 1 game will lose its unique place on the calendar and other outdoor games will water down the sex appeal of the Winter Classic. But on the other hand, the league also figures maybe it is better off striking while the iron is hot.

Either way, it presents this quandary: How does the league strike the balance between meeting the appetite for this event while not hampering the uniqueness of it?

"That's a terrific question and it's one that we've been debating internally and we're actually doing a lot of research," Bettman said in response to our question. "We know this [Heritage Classic] and our other events, such as the All-Star Game, are huge events in places where they're held. ... Some of the preliminary research we've seen says our fans want more of these. They don't care how many of these [there are], as long as they get one.

"Obviously you can't do an unlimited number and we don't want to dilute it. We thought it was important to go to a second game this year and have one in Canada. But you've asked the question which we haven't yet answered."

It's likely too late now for the NHL to stage more than two outdoor games next season; these events take massive planning and the NHL schedule-makers are already doing their thing. But starting in 2012-13, you might see more than two outdoor games if the league continues to believe in the dynamic appeal of these events.

An expansion of outdoor games would allow the league to worry less about U.S.-only or Canadian-only matchups and enable it to have more flexibility. On the downside, NHL ice guru Dan Craig might lose it. The pressure on him and his staff to pull these events off is gigantic. No one in the world is better at ice-making than Craig, but even he can't battle Mother Nature.

The Calgary ice wasn't great here this week. It was bad Saturday night for the alumni game, as cracks and holes formed because of cold weather and over-usage throughout the day. It was better for Sunday's actual NHL game, but still not great. The league staff decided to hold off using a Zamboni and instead scraped the ice with shovels and watered the ice down with hoses.

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Gerry Thomas/Getty ImagesIce conditions were not ideal for the Heritage Classic. Ice crews used scrapers and water hoses to treat the surface instead of Zambonis.

The ice conditions limited physical play and saw the puck bounce over stick blades.

"The ice wasn't terrible," Flames captain Jarome Iginla said. "For sure, there's less contact. The ice wasn't good around the boards. We all want to play hard, but you don't want to see anyone get hurt."

But the game was played, the players didn't complain and one understands that you're never going to have great ice for these games. Heck, some NHL indoor rinks aren't doing much better on some nights, a point Bettman himself made in his postgame news conference.

The falling rain during the third period of the Winter Classic challenged the integrity of the actual game, but no one left Heinz Field feeling ripped off. That's because the event itself was sensational. It was just like what we had this weekend in Calgary; one local columnist said it was the most significant hockey buzz the city has had since the Flames' electrifying run to the Stanley Cup finals in 2004.

"It's huge," Flames president Ken King told ESPN.com in the victors' dressing room. "And when you have an execution like we had, how the NHL transformed this great, old stadium, I think it just exemplifies that when you take our great game and showcase it in a special way, it's a real winner all the way around. I can't imagine having a better execution, a better outcome, happier fans and a better showcase for the game."

But be careful what you wish for. Staging this event isn't for the faint of heart.

"It's a long, long process," King said. "There are times during that process where you say, 'Holy cow, is this what we want, or is this a distraction?' Until you get to this day and then you say, 'Everything was worth it, all the work, all the effort by everyone.' It was totally worth it."

And King fully understands why other teams are lining up to host the event and why the NHL is wondering whether to hold more per season.

"They have a complete and total franchise here to manage how they see fit, but I think the fans will die for this," King said.

No other NHL matchup can garner as much league-wide appeal as a Capitals-Penguins game; but the future of the NHL outdoor game is more of what we saw this weekend in Calgary than what Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin put on in Pittsburgh -- a regional monster clash that fans in the rest of the league may or may not care to watch.

Those 41,022 freezing fans at McMahon Stadium on Sunday may have attended the sporting event of their lives. The question now for the NHL: How many more towns will have that feeling before the thrill is gone?

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.