Adam Williams, Sports Editor Ω
Since its first Heritage Classic at Commonwealth Stadium in 2003, the NHL has been in love with the idea of outdoor hockey games. And hey, why not? The now annual Winter Classic has become a “cornerstone event” that draws huge ratings (4.6 million viewers when the Capitals played the Penguins in 2011) on the NHL calendar, features throwback jerseys that can be sold for outrageous prices and has become the annual subject of the HBO 24/7 series adored by fans.
But this season there will be no Winter Classic. The NHL, mired in yet another lockout, cancelled the event Nov. 2, stating, “The logistical demands for staging events of this magnitude made today’s decision unavoidable.”
While I think it is entirely unacceptable that this lockout has gone on as long as it has, I have to say I’m a bit relieved the Winter Classic has been cancelled. Not because the idea of watching the Leafs play in front of 115,000 fans during a prime-time NHL event makes my stomach turn — which it does — but because I think it will be better for the event in the long run.
For a long time now I have argued that making the Winter Classic an annual event was a mistake. Sure, it’s great for the markets involved, regardless of how often the game occurs those fans will turn out in droves. But for the rest of the NHL, especially those whose teams aren’t classified as worthy of being involved, the game has lost a bit of its lustre.
The first Heritage Classic in Edmonton was a spectacle. Two teams playing outdoors, in the freezing cold and snow, iconic NHLers participating in an alumni game; it was really something to behold. But now, it has become just another part of the yearly schedule. I’ll watch the game if I’m free, but I certainly won’t plan my day around it like I used to and I know I’m not alone.
Not only that, but with the current state of the NHL and its labour negotiations, does anyone really want to see the Winter Classic played this year? As Greg Wyshynski, editor of the Puck Daddy blog on Yahoo! Sports points out:
“Did you really want to see the players going through the motions of an HBO series and an outdoor game and promotional events after the NHL denigrated them as cattle and took money out of their pockets? To hear ‘lockout angst’ replace ‘ice conditions’ as the media obsession?
“Did you really want to stomach Bettman spewing platitudes about a game that had been reduced to a bargaining chip and about the importance of ‘the greatest fans in the world’ who ranked somewhere behind the price of massage therapists on the NHL’s lockout radar?”
Postponing the Winter Classic is not something that any NHL fan hoped for this season, it’s a sign that time is quickly running out to save the season. Now that it’s happened, I can objectively say I think it will be better for the event in the end. Fans from markets around the NHL will look forward to it, players will celebrate it with the same vigour as days gone by and the focus of the event will be the game itself and not the conclusion of the lockout.
Now all we have to do it get Fehr and Bettman to put aside their egos and make a deal, before fan animosity turns towards the 2014 Winter Classic.