We remember Sidney Crosby’s goal on New Year’s Eve 2008, in front of a noisy and icy crowd at Buffalo Stadium, in a game that seemed to be playing out in a snowball.
We remember the game between the Penguins and the Sabres that ushered in a new era of outdoor play in the NHL that stretched from Fenway Park to the Cotton Bowl and Dodger Stadium. We remember the moment when the NHL, still in the midst of the cancelled 2004-05 lockout season, showed that it could transcend its niche status by one day planting its flag for college football and luring fans to the stadium to watch a regular hockey game.
What you don’t really remember in this game is the risk.
At the risk of making the game even worse than it already was. The risk of the player sustaining significant injuries due to the difficult conditions. That no one, from fans to sponsors, is interested enough in the offside gadget to want a second edition.
If things were different – the weather could be two or three degrees warmer than it has been so far – the Winter Classic could disappear, Bill Daley reminded the Sports Business Journal.
Instead, 11 Winter Classic and 19 other outdoor games follow, including the NHL games in Lake Tahoe this weekend, the Colorado Avalanche against the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday and the Philadelphia Flyers against the Boston Bruins on Sunday.
These games are unlike anything the NHL has ever attempted: Open air games without fans, whose success depends entirely on the quality of the game itself and the landscape (and water landscape) around the rink.
This is hockey as it should be, on a frozen pond in the middle of a beautiful country in winter. But there’s no sold-out crowd buying $30 caps at the stadium. There are no stands or sponsored stalls in the village.
The Lake Tahoe games will either rewrite the league’s offside strategy or become a pandemic individual curiosity. In fact, it’s another NHL winter classic.
There’s no commitment beyond this year, but if it becomes a big success, I think it’s absolutely thoughtful and complements what we do with outdoor games, NHL content manager Steve Mayer recently told ESPN. A mall in Washington. Central Park. Mount Rushmore. Imagine all the games with a background like that.
Once you start dreaming about these things, you can’t stop. I even went on Google Earth to look for the Mount Rushmore National Memorial to see where the Chicago Blackhawks are – it’s an outdoor game; you don’t expect the league to invite another team, do you? — … could be playing.
There is a garage with a roof terrace which is fascinating ….
The NHL’s first idea this season for a fanless outdoor game was a game in Lake Louise, Alberta that would provide a breathtaking backdrop in the Rocky Mountains. After initial negotiations, it became clear that the event faced a number of challenges, ranging from a lack of infrastructure to limited sponsorship within the federal park. These hurdles could have been overcome with a little more advance notice before the season, and Canada’s COWID-19 pandemic protocols would not have complicated matters.
Nevertheless, there was a strong desire to play a game in a remote location, in a season when most games will be played without the presence of the fans. It’s something we’ve always wanted to do, and there’s no better time than now, Meyer said. Let’s try to find a solution. We will consider a suitable place and location. Can we do that?
When it was decided that Lake Tahoe was the ideal location, the NHL organized a two-month scrum. He didn’t have time to attend the usual number of pre-game outdoor games. Face-to-face meetings would be just the thing for Zoom. Sufficient infrastructure had to be built for the teams and league staff, as well as the rink itself – on what would normally be the 18th floor. The hole in the golf course is.
Remember that Avalanche front man Pierre-Edouard Bellemare was very disappointed that the games weren’t actually played in Lake Tahoe:
Here’s @andreburakovsky crushing Pierre-Edouard Bellemare’s dreams and telling him the February race in Lake Tahoe is off. #Avs pic.twitter.com/Umha9Srtpk
– Peter Baugh (@Peter_Baugh) 12. January 2021
Normally, the NHL has to build much more infrastructure for outdoor games, including meeting places for fans around the venues. But no fans in Lake Tahoe means no fan involvement.
When we go to one of our outdoor games, the event lasts a week. We do a lot of sponsorship around the event. But our sponsors, Bridgestone and Honda, think the event itself speaks for itself. You’ll see elements in the show that appeal to these brands and others, Meyer said. Remember: No income from ticket sales. It’s a little different.
This is the fundamental question that arises with these open-air plays at a distance: How do you make enough money to make these experiences worthwhile for the NHL.
With a crowd of 76,126 at Notre Dame Stadium, the 2019 Winter Classic was a surprise event for the NHL. John Crouch/Sportswire Icon
The NHL is a goal-oriented league that is taking a financial bath this season with no fans in the arenas. It is well known that the value of Gary Bettman’s losses in the preseason begin with the letter B, as in a billion. The Winter Classic could be a cash cow: The 2014 edition of Michigan Stadium brought in more than $20 million in revenue (from all sources, according to Sports Business Daily). An outdoor game without fans is a game without revenue.
Can games that are not locally activated generate enough sponsorship? Will audiences support the growth of television revenues? Are fans going to buy gear for a game none of them can attend because the NHL store offers a litany of Tahoe-related items?
It’s not about making money. It’s about not losing money, Meyer said.
As they discovered in Lake Louise, sponsorship opportunities can be limited by location.
There are opportunities in or near historic sites where you can partner with the government and try to do something, Meyer said. But I see him growing up, that it’s not always lakes and mountains.
That includes places like the National Mall and Central Park, which the NHL has been dreaming about since the first showdown in Buffalo 13 years ago. For now, it’s about deferred dreams for a safer date.
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These are opportunities in the non-periodic years. You can’t put on a play in a public place with an audience that [now] wants to leave, Meyer said. There was nothing we could do to tell the fans to leave, when there were some 20 million people waiting for them.
The NHL will not be bothered by fan reaction to an outdoor game in 2021. The last Winter Classic, where the Nashville Predators took on the Dallas Stars in the Cotton Bowl, was the least rated and least watched edition of the event. In five of the last six seasons of outdoor plays, attendance has declined year after year.
The homogeneity of the place can be questioned. While the 2019 game at Notre Dame Stadium is convenient for Chicago and Boston, it is also the most unique venue for the Winter Classic since the 2014 game at Michigan Stadium. Fans have seen these games take place in many football stadiums. After Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium and Dodger Stadium, what other NHL stadium should an outdoor game actually look like?
You know what the fans didn’t see? Lake Tahoe. National Mall. Central Park. Yosemite. Yellowstone. The Grand Canyon. Glacier National Park. The Rideau Canal. Lake Louise. Somewhere in the Yukon. Iceland. Patagonia.
Everywhere else there is a beautiful view, a unique environment and a place to skate. Think carefully.
The biggest success of the Winter Classic was the sudden realization that the NHL shouldn’t be limited to the same 30 arenas each season. The Lake Tahoe Games, if successful, will broaden this horizon into a panoramic view.
The first time they did the Winter Classic, it was a trial run. If it was a disaster, if it didn’t go well, would they do a second round? Year? I don’t think they committed to anything in that first year after Buffalo, Meyer said. Has a decision been made on how to proceed? No. But if it succeeds, it opens up an opportunity.
1. Katie Strang’s article on the Coyotes was the talk of the town this week. For me, it filled a void.
Since Alex Meruelo took control of the franchise in July 2019, all of the problems the Coyotes have encountered – from missed payments to internal personnel issues – have been explained by the team with the new regime’s inexperience as NHL owners. These are guys who are open to learning and investing in the NHL, as GM Bill Armstrong described.
But after reading the article, it’s clear that Meruelo isn’t just another casino and radio station owner looking to run a hockey team, he’s a casino and radio station owner applying unusual tactics to NHL owners. Nickel and dimple. Tough sellers. Reduce costs to the number of wipes used by employees.
Hockey fans have long wanted more non-hockey players in the NHL to dismantle the Old Boys network. Alex Meruelo is a very unconventional owner. There is no excuse for the unprofessional incidents in this story. But a businessman from another world who then ends up in the NHL, where his tactics are not common, could explain the Coyotes’ luck.
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2. I think Bill Armstrong is a talented front office executive whose understanding of team building will ultimately benefit the Arizona Coyotes franchise. I also think he was completely, utterly and embarrassingly wrong in his approach to Strang’s cover. After a lecture on journalistic ethics, Armstrong asked the reporter what she thought would happen if he told the league’s general managers how she does her job, she wrote.
These CEOs know how Katie Strang does her job. Like Gary Bettman and Bill Daley. The same goes for all the survivors of physical and sexual abuse she has defended in her writings, and for the organizations, from USA Hockey to the New York Mets, to whom she has told the truth. A first-year director talking about journalistic ethics with a respected journalist like Strang is like the Arizona Coyotes lecturing the Montreal Canadiens on how to hang championship banners.
3. Clearly, the Coyote story is the topic of conversation in the NHL offices. The League knew its publication was inevitable, but did not know what accusations and dirty laundry the article would ultimately contain. I was told that he was prepared for something even more devastating than the published article, which is a credit to Strang as a journalist. I feel like the league has gotten better, which wasn’t worse. At least until the Coyotes make it worse with their ridiculous press release – a Streisand effect study, if there is one.
Weekly winners and losers
Winner: The Florida Panthers
As for me, I want to welcome our new hockey players. The Cats’ victory over Carolina Wednesday night moved them into first place in the Central Division, tied in points (with Chicago) and in scoring. Not looking right away, but Jonathan Huberdeau could be in the running for the Hart Trophy.
Loser: Nashville Predators
The Predators are now 10 points out of the league lead and nine points out of the final playoff spot in Central. With 400 points, the Detroit Red Wings are just one win away from the bottom spot in the standings. I did some radio shows in Nashville this week. The whole conversation revolved around the breakup of the team and the firing of the coach and general manager. Things have long since gotten out of hand in Nashville.
Winner: Caring for those we have lost
See you this morning with the Sabre fans…. pic.twitter.com/vYkRR2CfNV
– Arthur Staple (@StapeAthletic) February 17, 2021
The Buffalo Sabres are so bad that one fan asked if he could remove his late aunt’s cardboard from the arena so she wouldn’t have to see the team again. This is the most thoughtful and wild thing we’ve ever read.
Loser: Taylor Hall.
After six points in Buffalo’s first three games, Hall has three points in his next nine games and is also at minus 10. He also doesn’t skate with Jack Eichel anymore. He should be wearing the new jersey by switch time. But at least the receipts are clean.
Winner: Marc-André Fleury
Fleury has a record of 7-2-0 with a percentage of .937 hits and a percentage of 1.56 pars. Thousands of Penguins fans dream of GM Ron Hextall bringing Fleury home as a life-saving goalie. We imagine the Golden Knights will remain on the rebirth roster for the time being.
Loser: These golden helmets
Vegas ran out to 0-2 when they wore shiny gold helmets that made them look like construction workers in Eldorado. This has led some Knights fans to declare that they should never wear them again. If the helmets come off, at least we have Pete Blackburn’s meme:
I knew they looked familiar pic.twitter.com/i2zM37g0FM
– Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) February 12, 2021
Winner: Hockey teams on Twitter
A strong week for NHL teams on social media. The Minnesota Wild have accepted NFL star J.J. Watt’s statement that free agency is coming to its natural end. The New Jersey Devils paid tribute to Salt Bay and its message to rival New York Rangers:
You’re doing great, honey. pic.twitter.com/iIxFH9bLHF
– New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) February 17, 2021
Loser: Hockey Media on Twitter
Not a good week for the hockey media on Twitter. Hockey News had to send its readers a message after it was revealed that it was a diversity issue that had Zdeno Chara on the cover and not a player of color. The Professional Hockey Players’ Association, of which I am a member, has also been criticized for promoting kid gloves, image building and the column with stuffed toys in the New York Post about the disgraced Ranger defending the soul of Tony DeAngelo. Every day, PHWA-sponsored hockey journalists tell incredible stories. This one doesn’t deserve this kind of attention.
- Retro clothing from Washington capitals is perhaps more popular than their usual jerseys from home and abroad.
- Bauer Hockey’s impressive Willie O’Rea Memorial Skates will be auctioned off in support of the Black Girl Hockey Club.
- Nathan McKinnon will compete in the Bridgestone Hole in One Million Dollar Hole contest on the 17th hole. Play the first hole at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course (par-3). This hole was the same hole that Joe Sakic, the general manager of the Avalanche, made at the 2011 American Celebrity Centennial Golf Championships. If MacKinnon makes a hole-in-one, the NHL will donate $1 million to the NHL/NHLPA Learn to Play program. The kids get the money if he can’t do it, right?
- Ken Dryden’s article on huge goalies and how to increase goal scoring was considered very provocative, but it was also published on a day when almost every game on the schedule produced one goal.
- A.J. Quetta, who suffered a spinal cord injury during a high school hockey game last month, was inspired by his teammates during a visit to Shepard Rehabilitation Center in Atlanta.
- Erik Karlsson, who is suffering from an injury. Rinse and repeat.
- P.K. Subban: For a lot of young players coming into the league, guys who will be playing for another 15 years, it can certainly hurt. That’s what I always say, the best players always get paid. I think the players now need to focus on what they can control, and that’s how we play. If you play well, you get paid, whether it’s this year, next year, or two years from now.
- Justin Bourne eliminates all Canadian teams in the quarterfinals of the season. Vancouver: It looks like they’re taking a break this season because things are going to change. Disappointing, disappointing, disappointing for a fanbase that has had some trouble with this, ahem, in the past.
From your friends at ESPN.
We took an extensive look at the new NHL response to VIDOC-19 and what the rest of the season looks like.
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