Good news for fans of outdoor hockey. On the heels of the success of the Winter Classic game, in which an NHL® game is played in an outdoor venue on New Year's Day, the league has added more outdoor games the the NHL season with the introduction of the "Stadium Series" games and a return of the Heritage Classic in Canada. The biggest NHL game of the regular season, the Winter Classic has quickly become part of New Year's Day for families across North America.
Following the thinking that if one outdoor game is good, more is better, this season there will be not one, not two, but six games played in outdoor stadiums across North America. The NHL and Commissioner Gary Bettman are hoping that an expanded outdoor game schedule will translate to expanded viewership and grow the game's popularity.
In addition to the Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium, there will be an outdoor hockey game played at Dodger Stadium, Soldier Field and two at Yankee Stadium in the U.S., as well as the revived Heritage Classic in Vancouver's BC Place.
For many fans the outdoor hockey games are a welcome throwback to days gone by, when hockey was played outside without all the corporate tie ins of today. And for many living in the north, the games are a callback to childhood days spent playing hockey on frozen lakes and ponds. Throw in a little snow and it's easy to forget the marketing behemoth, multi-million-dollar contracts, and two month playoff that turn many fans off. The Winter Classic has consistently been one of the most watched hockey games of the year, in some cases rivaling the Stanley Cup, and Winter Classic tickets are some of the most expensive on Ticket Liquidator and the secondary ticket market.
Outdoor Game Fatigue?
It remains to be seen if the additional outdoor hockey games will dampen fan enthusiasm for the New Year's Day event and outdoor hockey in general, but at least in the local markers fans will be exited to see their local team playing in the home ballpark of their other favorite team.
One can't help but wonder where the Stadium Series goes from here. In the future, will each team get to host their own outdoor game in a nearby stadium? You'd have to think that at the team level, owners would jump at the chance to host such a lucrative event. Venues that have expressed interest in hosting the an outdoor hockey game include Citi Field, Target Field, FedEx Field, Bush Stadium, Coors Field, Ohio Stadium and Gillette Stadium. But the NHL might be weary of making the outdoor hockey games so common that they begin to loose their appeal.
The crowds at outdoor games are much bigger, as outdoor venues can hold many times more than an indoor one can. Michigan Stadium (also known as "The Big House"), where the Red Wings will host the Maple Leafs in New Year's Day in the 2014 Winter Classic, has a capacity of 109,901 compared to the Red Wings' home venue Joe Louis Arena's 20,066.
The 2014 NHL Coors Light Stadium Series kicks off in Southern California of all places, with the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings playing at Dodger Stadium. Seeing an outdoor ice rink in a location that has an average temperature of 65 degrees will definitely be different. The heat and sun will be a challenge for organizers, but NHL Senior Director of Facility Operations Dan Craig is confident the game can be played.
"[W]e weren't sure that it could be done," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told NHL.com. "I spoke to Dan again, and he's confident that whatever the weather is, he will be able to put down a sheet of ice that will provide for a competitive game."
The 2013 - 14 Outdoor NHL Game schedule:
- January 1 - NHL Winter Classic - Detroit Red Wings vs Toronto Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium
- January 25 - Los Angeles Kings against the Anaheim Ducks at Dodger Stadium
- January 26 - New Jersey Devils vs. New York Rangers at Yankee Stadium
- January 29 - New York Islanders vs. the Rangers at Yankee Stadium
- March 1 - Pittsburgh Penguins vs Chicago Blackhawks at Soldier Field
- March 2 - Heritage Classic - Vancouver Canucks vs Ottawa Senators at BC Place
The NHL conducted the first outdoor game in 2003, when the Heritage Classic took place in Edmonton between the Oilers and Canadiens. More than 57,000 fans packed Commonwealth Stadium to watch the game in sub-zero temperatures.
The first Winter Classic was held in 2008 at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium and featured snow, overtime and a shootout, which definitely helped to cement the Winter Classic's place in hockey lore early.
After kicking off at the relatively modest Buffalo Stadium, the NHL tapped into one of the most iconic venues in the world for the Winter Classic's second act, Chicago's Wrigley Field. Wrigley was followed by Fenway Park in 2010, Heinz Field in 2011, Citizens Bank Park in 2012. The lock-out shortened 2013 season did not feature a Winter Classic game, as the season resumed after New Year's Day.
Long relegated to also-ran status compared to NFL, MLB and NBA, in recent year's the NHL has experimented with various methods to increase the game's popularity, none more successful than the Winter Classic. With the expansion of the outdoor hokey slate, the NHL is definitely increasing the marketability of the sport, at least in cities hosting the games. And until the league gets a signal that fans are tiring of the unique experience, it's reasonable to assume outdoor hockey games will become more and more prevalent in the next few years.