What could be better than sitting in front of an HD TV on New Years Day watching two of the best teams in the NHL playing high tech pond hockey in historic Wrigley field?
Growing up in the South as a child in the sixties, New Years Day was set aside for the Rose Bowl Parade and four of five college football bowl games on a grainy black and white television. With few games being televised during the regular season having a full day of action was nirvana for a kid with a limited view of the world outside of small town Columbia, Tennessee.
Over the years, with cable and satellite TV and the digital revolution of the Internet, the uniqueness of college bowl games has diminished substantially. From a slate of 10 to 12 traditional bowls in the 60’s to a list of 34 mostly insignificant match ups with compelling names like the “Magic Jack” bowl you can watch a game or two every day from mid December well in to the New Year. Games affecting the national championship have been removed from New Year’s Day and spread over a period of a week, mostly during prime time at the whim of network dollars and ratings.
As the landscape changed a void was created for something compelling and entertaining for the masses of folks sitting a home on a cold winter holiday. Last year, for the first time, the NHL and it’s television partners gambled that a new fangled pond hockey game featuring league poster boy, Sidney Crosby, at Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson stadium would attract a few viewers and improve ratings for NBC’s limited weekly NHL coverage in the US.
What they got far exceeded any marketer’s dream. With the backdrop of a sold out football stadium, beautifully decorated with gently falling snow arriving almost if on the director’s cue, the game on the midfield frozen pond was scripted perfectly. If I didn’t believe in the absolute integrity of the NHL and the best athletes in the world of sport, I would have thought it was planned out in a room full of Hollywood’s best writers. How else could you have it come down to Sidney Crosby winning it all on a penalty shot after sixty five minutes of action.
As well as Winter Classic One was received both in and out of the world of hockey, there was still debate and a feeling that an outdoor game should only be held every few years so that it would not lose it’s “uniqueness”. The smarter folks in the home office prevailed and Winter Classic Two was spawned and placed in the heartland of America with an original six traditional match up between the Wings and Blackhawks.
The decision to make it an annual event may be what brings the NHL back to a true “big four” pro sports status in the United States. With the NHL being buried on cable and an occasional NBC weekend game, there is little chance for a non-hockey fan especially in non-traditional markets to acquire a taste for a game that is better viewed in person than on television. On New Year’s Day the Winter Classic is becoming a must see for sports fans everywhere. From an event standpoint, what the Super Bowl is to football, and Daytona is to auto racing, the Winter Classic is to hockey and now it is the poster child game of the NHL.
From the first time I saw the “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” video promo until now as I sit and watch the rendition of “Take Me Out to the Hockey Game” and the aesthetic beauty of the Wings and Hawks playing the game as competitively as any Stanley Cup final, I have been in hog heaven enjoying every aspect of the build up and the game itself.
For the players, it’s a game that they would kill to be a part of as demonstrated by the return of Nick Lidstrom and Chris Chelios from injuries ahead of schedule specifically in order to participate in this special game. From early in the first period when Brent Seabrook drilled Dan Cleary and knocked him over the boards to the floor of the Hawk’s bench to the handshakes at center ice at the end of the game there was never a lack of intensity or focus on winning. The defending Stanley Cup champ Red Wings fought hard to come back and win over the hometown favorite Blackhawks by a 6-4 margin.
The Winter Classic game last year was an “event”. This year’s Winter Classic II (now worthy of a Roman numeral) is the birth of a “tradition” that will be instilled in the fabric of the hockey season for years to come. Mid-day on New Year’s Day will now mean one thing for hockey fans and future fans, who may be checking out hockey for the first time, the annual Winter Classic. With rumors of interesting settings and top quality teams in future games, the old school college bowl games of yesteryear have been replaced with the tradition of the future, the NHL’s marketing superstar, the Winter Classic.
Buddy Oakes for NHLOnTheGlass