Welcome to my weekly sports column, “Random Musings”. In this space, mostly written on Wednesdays, this column will contain my views on something in sports that stays on my mind. If you are reading this, chances are you follow sports in some way, shape, or form. Some of us watch a lot of sports and we get inundated with information, such as scores, stats, streaks, sound bites, and singular performances. As I watch, things strike me and stick in my head. Those are the topics I want to write about.
I will mainly focus on the core sports I talk about on the “Sports With The StatMan” show: baseball, football, and hockey. But, if something catches my eye in a different sport, whether it is Landon Donovan streaking down the field for the United States in the World Cup or a Big East college basketball classic like last year’s Syracuse-Connecticut six-overtime game, I will write about that, too.
Before we get on this ride together, here is something else you should know. I am opinionated, but, in the end, I just love sports. I like to keep my focus of sports on the field, not on guns in locker rooms or athletes that have 13 mistresses sprinkled throughout the globe. Much like our show, as this column progresses, it will take on its own personality. I appreciate all of your comments and your help to make this weekly read the best read it can be.
This week, I want to talk hockey and the New Year’s Day outdoor game that has quickly earned its name, the Winter Classic.
The Winter Classic is only three years old, but it is already becoming a staple of the holiday season. The buzz leading up to the event, the pageantry of the festivities, and the games themselves have been great. For a day that has always been associated with college football, hockey has elbowed its way into relevance on January 1st.
Hockey has fallen off the radar in the last few years, thanks in no small part to the season-long lockout of 2004-05 and the termination of the partnership between the NHL and ESPN. Hockey was one of the “major sports” before the lockout and has been reduced to “niche sport” status in the years since. In order for hockey to get back to “big four” status, the NHL will have to lure the disenchanted fan back to the game, nevermind the casual fan. The casual fan helps propel a big sport to greater heights, but if the disenchanted fan comes back, hockey will officially be back.
The NHL has made significant strides in its programming on the NHL Network and has partnered with NBC to give the league some national network exposure. The league website, nhl.com, is a font of information about each game and the league at-large. But, the Winter Classic is the crown jewel.
The Winter Classic serves both masters: the disenchanted fan and the casual fan. It looks great on television, with the backdrop of venerable venues like Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. The game happens on a day when most people are home. The college bowl games have largely left New Year’s Day, so the day became a vulnerable spot in the sports schedule. It has become, by far, the best thing on television in its time slot. This perfect storm can allow hockey to drum up some momentum.
Momentum is key. Momentum can turn an Olympic sport into an American sensation. Momentum can make a memorable performance into a seminal moment, and keep that good feeling going for a long period of time. And, yes, momentum can even propel a sport into the collective conscience of both the disenchanted fan and the casual fan.
The Winter Classic is the NHL’s Daytona, its Super Bowl. There is a lot of potential in there. Not only is it the pomp and circumstance of the game, it is also a great opportunity to shine a light on the local college, high school, and youth ranks. Legends can skate on the ice and take part in the spectacle. The mini-rink behind the main rink, in right field, is a fantastic touch. But, the buy-in from the league is the financial aspect with Winter Classic-themed apparel and collectibles, the larger venue with jacked-up ticket prices, and the heightened television ratings allow the league and NBC to charge more for advertising.
The league’s bean-counters have undoubtedly noticed this and after the drunken haze of their celebration from this year’s edition has worn off, they must realize the only thing better than one Winter Classic is another one. Whether it is a doubleheader on New Year’s Day or a game later in the season, I am sure the wheels are in motion. If it were up to me, and such decisions appropriately are not, I would make another splash with a second Winter Classic later in the season during another vulnerable spot in the sports schedule.
The NFL has helped us out in this case, mandating a week of rest and additional hoopla between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl. They have slotted the Pro Bowl for the Sunday before the Super Bowl to kick off the week leading up to the big game. But, the Pro Bowl is the most boring of all-star games, especially when I would assume the teams participating in the Super Bowl would not send any representatives. It would allow hockey to rule the day again.
Canadian fans have complained that this is a showcase for America and that Canada should have a game, too. What about allowing the Canadian team to host the second game and rotating the Canadian cities? Play the game at neutral sites in Canada, where the game is grown and cultivated. They will guarantee a sell-out and a magical event.
If you are worried the league will rifle through its possible locations in a shorter period of time, you may be right. But, if the game is in Boston once every 10 years instead of once every 20 years, does it really matter? If you are worried about the weather, that would be the case with one game, too. Cold and snow short of a blizzard still allow for the game to be played, but rain and warm weather cannot. A game in Canada should never be rained out, but, nevertheless, a second game would be a chance worth taking for the NHL.
This year, the Vancouver Olympics in February will provide the platform for momentum before the stretch drive to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but I think the NHL should seriously consider another classic to remember hockey and bring it back to relevance.