The outdoor game: Gimmick or celebration of hockey's heritage?

12/31/2007 - NHL

Editor's note: In our "Friday Faceoff," ESPN.com NHL writer Scott Burnside (based in Atlanta) and Toronto Star columnist and frequent ESPN.com contributor Damien Cox (based in Toronto) duke it out over any given hockey topic. Let the games begin!

This week's topic: Is this season's outdoor game a good or bad thing?

Scott: Hello, Damien. Top of the festive season to you and your family. I'm counting down the minutes until I head to Buffalo for the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 for the NHL's second outdoor game extravaganza. But I seem to recall you pooh-poohed the event earlier this season. Don't tell me you've forgotten your Canadian roots and gone all Scrooge on this endeavor. (Or "endeavour," as you Canadians like it.)

Damien: Actually, it's endeavour. Not that you were born here in Canada or anything. The outdoor event? Oh, sure, great idea. Well, great old idea. Or just old idea. Look, if people want to sit in a Buffalo snowdrift and "watch" an NHL game from 300 feet away, God bless 'em. But don't tell me this game should count in the standings. It makes a mockery of the game. You'll have guys out there in toques playing on crappy ice hoping to get the wind for the third period. This may be fun to some, but it ain't legitimate. Signed, Scrooge.

Scott: Oh, come on now. You can't tell me the Florida Panthers' playing 41 games on lousy ice in front of no fans every season is more legitimate than the game's returning to its roots. The fact that it was done more than two years ago in Edmonton hardly qualifies the Buffalo event as "old hat," or "old toque," as it were. Did I spell that right? It's been a long time since I had one on.

Damien: To its roots? To its roots? When, my dear friend, was the game ever played in full equipment on a hockey rink with boards in the middle of a football field? Um, that would be precisely never. This is not skating on a river; not even close.

Scott: So, what you're saying is, if the NHL wanted to play a game on the Don River in Toronto or the Saskatchewan River or even the Mighty Mississippi, it would be OK? I guess I don't see what's wrong with doing something like this periodically. If you're worried about ice conditions, you could probably find a dozen rinks that regularly have worse ice than what will be on display at Ralph Wilson Stadium, including the team that plays at the center of the hockey universe. (I know, the Maple Leafs are actually going to pry open their wallets and get a bona fide big-league ice-making system at Air Canada Centre sometime around the 41st anniversary of their last Stanley Cup, but I digress.) Why not embrace something that might actually bring a few new fans to the game?

Damien: Ah, I see that your arguments are going to be so flimsy this week, you're just going to jump from one to the next. The old razzle-dazzle. OK, I'm game.
So, you believe that somebody from Lackawanna or Tonawanda, or even Albany or someplace near Pittsburgh, is going to drive to Buffalo, drink a ton of beer to stay warm, peer through a snowstorm at a rink he or she can barely see without binoculars, and immediately think, "Wow, this is so good, I'm gonna buy Sabres or Penguins or Panthers season tickets?" Aren't you into the New Year's grog a tad early?

Scott: No grog yet, my friend. And, once again, you're missing my point (sort of like the Leafs' power play). It's not about selling the game to the converted. The 70,000 who scrambled to get tickets to the Frost Fest aren't the ones the NHL is, or should be, appealing to, necessarily. I'm sure it will be an event they will remember for a long time, regardless of whether they had great views or not. These folks will see no more than the ones at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, but I don't recall hearing too many complaints from fans about being involved with that tilt between the Habs and Oilers. But what about the fan who is sick of the mindless parade of college bowl games and says, "Hey, that's cool" (pardon the pun) "let's watch this for a while"? It's the spectacle. Sometimes size does matter, and for a league that's constantly derided for thinking small, it should be applauded on the occasions it does think outside the box.

Damien: Oh, come on. Moving the shells isn't going to help you, Mr. Plate-Spinner. The notion that the NHL will add a single new fan is preposterous. Moreover, if this is what they must do to attract new customers, it's a statement about the state of the product outside of this "classic." This is about NBC's needing something to televise because it has no bowl games, and this is about giving the Sabres-Penguins (two franchises familiar with bankruptcy) the chance to split a big gate. Sell it to me on those principles and I'll at least give you points for being in touch with reality.

Scott: Well, you can't have it both ways. You can't slam the league for not having enough customers and then slam it because it is trying to do something that is out of the ordinary and has the potential to be extraordinary. I've played hockey outdoors with you (have you worked on that shot?). You have to admit there is something positively unique about the game being played outdoors on a frosty night or day. It is something that unites all players, male and female, old and young. The fact the NHL is tapping into this experience should be applauded. And if you draw a few new fans to the table, so much the better. I still don't understand why you're so opposed to the event.

Damien: Geez. Does that palaver come with violin music in the background, like the Masters? Sorry I was a bit slow in responding, but after reading "unites all players, male and female," etc., I just threw up a little. Was that some sort of rip-off from the Gettysburg Address? Or off the Statue of Liberty? Look, you want to do something different and make it outdoors? First, not a regular-season game. If the Pens miss the playoffs because Sidney Crosby gets frostbite or the puck got lost in a snowbank, it will be absurd. How about using the All-Star Game, merely the most boring in sports, for the outside format? And how about make it river hockey? Use the whole field, 12 men per side, and make it a celebration of the sport. Use tube skates and magazines for shin pads. Have fun with the idea. Don't try to pretend this money-making operation is something about heritage. And no, I don't really know what palaver means, or whether I spelled it correctly.

Scott: I think you did spell palaver correctly because there is no "u" in it. Like "odor." Which leads me to your last comment. You must not have much regard for hockey players if you think playing one game outside, where it might be a bit more chilly or the playing conditions different, will mean the difference between making the playoffs and not. I think Crosby will be OK. He can afford to buy some of those nice thin winter gloves and an extra pair of long johns. As for the All-Star Game, I don't mind if they play it outside or in a tent or in a phone booth, given it is one of the most pointless exercises in sports. But you still haven't addressed what sticks in your craw about the idea of playing one of 1,230 regular-season games outdoors? Can this be any worse than the two games played in London on brand new ice at the start of the regular season? No. Yet, not many people fretted that the Anaheim Ducks might miss the playoffs because they had to eat deep fried carrots for a couple of days instead of having lattes in Imperial Beach. Come on, what really bugs you about this? Was it that night down on the waterfront where I schooled you with that toe drag, loop-de-loop move?

Damien: It wasn't the toe drag that troubled me. It was the way your stick "accidentally" ended up leaving a sizable dent in my jock. Look, riddle me this, O Spirit of Sleeping Under the Christmas Tree Past. Would any other major sport do this? Would the NFL hold a playoff game in Chicago's United Center because it once held a championship game inside Chicago Stadium? Would baseball play on a corn field with James Earl Jones in the stands and let it count in the standings just to pretend it was a nod to history? Would basketball hold a contest on the pavement just to get a little street cred? Methinks not. Only the NHL, the league that let a TV network put a flaming tail on the puck, let this happen to a meaningful regular-season game.

Scott: But I think those leagues would entertain those ideas if they could be pulled off. You can bet that those other leagues would die to be able to tie the historic, romantic past of their respective games to their big-league, big-business current realities. You seem to think by doing this, the NHL is selling itself out again or somehow diminishing the game. I think this celebrates it and with almost no risk. If it's too snowy, cold and wet, the NHL will pull the plug on it. It won't be pretty, but they will. I've got an extra toque. I think you, Mr. Scrooge, should come up and discover the joys of hockey past. Who knows? It could change your whole outlook on life. What do you say?

Damien: Nope, I'm not coming. Didn't go to Edmonton for its party, and Buffalo just doesn't quite have all the attractions necessary to lure me for this biggie. Look, I hope the people that do go have a great time and I hope the weather doesn't ruin the game. But don't expect me to drink the NHL's Kool-Aid on this one. Calling this "heritage" would be like putting another team in Atlanta after the Flames couldn't make a go of it.

Scott: Wow! I hope you lighten up or all you'll find at the bottom of your stocking is a bunch of crumbled pucks. I don't think it's Kool-Aid the NHL is peddling here, but a chance to enjoy the game in a way that connects uniquely with the past that is so much a part of it. I think it's too bad you won't be there. I'll send you a postcard from Buffalo and save you a nice, big snowball from the game. Merry Christmas.

Damien: And to you and yours, pal. Sorry to snow on your parade. Maybe I'll be the one missing out, but somehow, I doubt it. Talk to you in 2008!

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."