Are the NHL’s Outdoor Games Getting Old?

Who doesn’t love hockey being played out in the open air, reminding everyone (except most of the players) of their days as a kid on frozen ponds? Who doesn’t love watching some of the best players of all time suit up and skate around very slowly, playing a game sort of resembling hockey? Who doesn’t love sunshine delays forcing the players to sit around and wait to start a game that is in fact still worth two points in the standings?

The NHL sure loves it, considering the boatloads of money they make off these games. And the fans love it, at least the ones who can afford to dish out a week’s salary to get tickets.

Oilers Spoil the Party

(Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports)
(Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports)

Winnipeg in October was the perfect setting for an outdoor game. Not too cold, thousands of fans packing the stadium, two teams with young stars on the rise. The atmosphere was great (once the sun subsided). Outdoor games are always a grandiose spectacle, whether it be the aesthetics, the jet planes flying overhead, the crisp clean ice gleaming, the awesome throwback jerseys (seriously, the Jets should always wear those; they were beautiful). There’s no question that all the pomp and circumstance was very well done, as the NHL continues to learn to improve the conditions. As for the game itself?

The best way to describe this year’s Heritage Classic would be the Cam Talbot game. The Oilers didn’t play particularly well in the first period, yet escaped unscathed. They ran into penalty trouble, but their netminder, who lost all credibility just a week prior against the Buffalo Sabres, held down the fort in helping lead his team to a memorable victory. The second period featured the only goals of the game, three by the Oilers, including a short-handed breakaway, and a pretty two-on-one between Connor McDavid and Darnell Nurse, who was fresh out of the penalty box. From the Oilers standpoint, it was exciting.

For the Jets and all their fans, the game was less than satisfying. Once you wipe away all the bells and whistles, the warm feelings of the alumni games, the awe and wonder of playing on such a big stage, there were still two points up for grabs, and the Jets had neither. The visitors win the majority of these outdoor games, and for obvious reasons. The home team gets pulled in many different directions. They have family and friends in attendance. The game, despite being a regular season contest, always feels more special, like it means a little bit more.

No team wants to let the home crowd down. Is there a distraction factor in play? It’s entirely possible because the numbers don’t lie. Going into yesterday’s heritage classic, the away team was 13-4-1 in outdoor games. That’s a staggering number. Maybe the idea of spoiling the day gives the visitors a little extra motivation. Maybe they have more time to focus on hockey. The elements are the same for both sides. The quality of the ice, the weather, the sight lines and the disruption of routine. There has to be some validity to the idea of distraction because there is too much of a discrepancy in the win/loss record.

(Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports)
(Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports)

Has the Novelty of Outdoor Games Worn Off?

When the reign of outdoor games first started, there was a lot of excitement It was something different. It spoke to the grass root level of hockey that was very dear to the hearts of many. The pictures were spectacular. The feel was special. But is it possible to have too much of a good thing? Everyone remembers Sidney Crosby’s shootout goal in 2008 against the Sabres. How many of those moments have we had since then? (The worst memory by far also involved Crosby, when David Steckel elbowed him in the head in 2011).

But the warm and fuzzy feelings of outdoor games have begun to fade for the hockey world in general. The individual fan bases love it, and every home team deserves a game of their own. But that’s easier said than done, and more often than not, it’s the same teams over and over that are featured in stadium series games. Maybe there should be some sort of compromise. The alumni games can stick because they still draw a lot of excitement. But instead of a regular season game, how about an exhibition game? Or maybe have the All-Star Game outdoors (goodness knows we need to find a way to make that more interesting).

The players always say they love it. But what else are they going to say? They’ll look like bad soldiers if they complain. They’ll look bitter if the losing side picks out everything that’s wrong with the concept. But for as many as there are who feel the outdoor games have lost their luster, there are those who still believe they’re relevant. And in terms of the fans who attend, that’s certainly the case. The excitment within the stadium hasn’t yet worn off, because everyone wants a chance to be a part of it. So long as the revenue stays high, the outdoor games aren’t going anywhere.

The NHL will keep finding new venues to hold them. They’ll keep coming up with ways to make the games even more specacular, even more grandiose, even more memorable. Despite the fact that a regular two points are on the line, these are no regular games. The handshakes at the end say it all. This is more than just another one of the 82. The NHL is trending towards making outdoor games the norm, rather than simply a special event. Fans whose teams aren’t involved may not watch with as much wonder. But there are still enough who cherish these games to keep them going.

And of course the mighty dollar. That always wins out in the end.