Print and Go Back ESPN.com: BlogsColumns [Print without images]

Friday, January 2, 2009
Updated: April 12, 8:54 PM ET
Winter Wonderland


Pardon the pun, but there is no other way to describe the New Year's Day game at Wrigley Field. The NHL hit a walk-off home run in extra innings. It's not often we credit the league for doing things the right way. Commissioner Gary Bettman has failed miserably during his tenure marketing his product. After the second annual Winter Classic, and third such outdoor game in NHL history, Bettman has finally struck gold.

The Blackhawks were disappointing in the second and third periods and missed out on two big points Thursday. The game itself may have been a bit lopsided, however, the spectacle of the event still made the day a big hit for the NHL. That fact can't be overlooked. As the league struggles to find a place in mainstream pop culture in the United States, the Winter Classic appears to be a fantastic marketing tool.

There was no snow globe effect like last year in Buffalo. There were just freezing temps, blustery winds and a hockey rink inside one of the most historic and recognizable stadiums in the entire world. The conditions were actually ideal for the ice surface. Last year's temps and snow fall in Buffalo made for difficult skating and stick-handling conditions. League officials spent valuable time working on the ice during the game at Ralph Wilson Stadium. This time, the players and the league said the ice was as good as some of the indoor rinks. Throw in the third largest TV market, the up-and-coming Hawks and the defending Stanley Cup Champions and the NHL had everything come together just right.

Thanks to the success of the event the last two seasons it appears the league will continue to stage an annual outdoor game. Word is other teams and venues are already lining up for a chance to host the event. With the waning interest in all-star games--not just in the NHL but across all sports--the league now has a more valuable tool to build into corporate sponsorship. This should be marketed as the marquee event of the regular season for the NHL. No other sport has something as nostalgic or unique.

Players and fans alike love it because it reminds us of our youth -- the excitement of that first winter freeze. That morning when your mom finally said the ponds were frozen enough to skate on. And we spent all day in the cold pretending to be Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Denis Savard or Ray Bourque. For more casual fans, it's still something to get excited about because it's different and unique. You don't have to be a die-hard hockey fan for something like the Winter Classic to pique your interest.

The NHL should spent the next two years getting the other four "Original Six" teams involved. How about a game in Fenway Park next year with the Bruins hosting the Canadians? Or the Rangers and Maple Leafs in new Yankee Stadium? And as technology advances and the NHL puts more of its resources into this event, how about a game in warmer climate stops around the league like Nashville, Carolina or even L.A.? OK, maybe L.A. is a stretch. But wouldn't that be a sight to see?

As long as the NHL doesn't screw this up -- which they've been known to do over the years--the Winter Classic should become a new North American tradition on New Year's Day.