Sunday, March 2, 2014
Outdoor games kiss-up worked pretty well
By Scott Burnside
When Colin Greening slid home the empty-net clincher in the Ottawa Senators' 4-2 win over the Canucks at B.C. Place in Vancouver on Sunday, it effectively brought to an end the NHL's ambitious -- some would say bloated -- outdoor slate of games.
From the epic, optically spectacular shootout win by the Toronto Maple Leafs over the Detroit Red Wings at Michigan Stadium on New Year's Day through to this weekend's post-Olympic outdoor adventures in snowy, bitterly cold Chicago and indoors in damp Vancouver, the NHL seems to have emerged unscathed from its experiment in outdoor saturation.
Maybe because we were in Sochi for the Olympic Games and almost everything leaves us a bit ragged right now, but there was indeed at least a perceived weariness factor when the Pittsburgh Penguins dropped in on the Chicago Blackhawks at Soldier Field on Saturday only to be waxed 5-1 in the NFL Bears' snowy, frigid domain.
And likewise it was a little of, "Oh, yeah, you guys are going to play outdoors too" when Ottawa and the Canucks went at it Sunday afternoon in Vancouver in the Heritage Classic.
But our weariness didn't necessarily represent or reflect fans' weariness.
And it is important, or at least relevant, to remind ourselves not to transfer our own feelings of "Oh, another one already?" to how the greater public might view and/or appreciate these events because in the end it appears the NHL gauged the public's appetite for the game out of doors (or in the case of B.C. Place, under a retractable dome) just about right.
In Vancouver, a bit of a tricky marketplace if ever there was one (just ask the Canucks, whose place in the market has shifted ever so slightly less than three years after going to Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup finals), an announced 54,194 showed for a game that figured to be the hardest of all six of the "outdoor" games to peddle.
The day before in Chicago, 62,921 took in the tilt at Soldier Field, the second outdoor game held in the city since the NHL launched the Winter Classic event on New Year's Day 2008.
Did fans in either city care that a week ago the eyes of the hockey world were on the medal games in Sochi?
If they did, it was hard to tell and the games in both cases were interesting, visually compelling contests no matter the elements.
In all, the NHL reported that 376,837 fans attended the six outdoor games -- the Winter Classic, four Stadium Series games and the Heritage Classic.
We were in Ann Arbor, where the largest crowd to ever watch an NHL game assembled in the snow and we were in Los Angeles less than month later, when the Anaheim Ducks and the Los Angeles Kings skated onto the ice in a magical setting in Chavez Ravine at Dodger Stadium along with Vin Scully and Wayne Gretzky and Kiss.
Hell, yeah. Times two.
Would we want to contemplate six more next season?
But, luckily it doesn't appear the NHL is, either.
Coming out of the lockout, all of this could be rationalized.
The idea of sharing this kind of event with as many fans in as many disparate markets as possible made sense. Sure, it was about recouping at least some of the money frittered away from another senseless work stoppage. But it was also about throwing an olive branch to fans:
"Hey, sorry we took half a year off. But look, this is going to happen in your backyard. Grab a coat and come on down."
The Winter Classic with Toronto and Detroit, postponed form 2013 because of the lockout, was a no-brainer that delivered the goods and then some.
The Dodger Stadium game was a well-executed bit of theater and the game itself was terrific, featuring two of the best teams in the NHL that just happened to exist a stretch of freeway apart in southern California.
The twin games in Yankee Stadium during Super Bowl week, why not? Why not do that?
For us the final two were the question marks.
Coming out of the Olympics, the theory was that the games in Chicago and Vancouver would be a jump-start to the NHL's final run to the playoffs. Throw in the league's ambitious documentary series "NHL Revealed: A Season Like No Other," that was, well, revealed, earlier in the week, and it made for a great smorgasbord of hockey.
Looks like the league did just that.
In the past, we kicked the NHL in the shins for not having an imagination.
Seems a bit unfair to criticize it for doing exactly the opposite.
As long as they don't do it again next year.