Since 2008, the NHL has only missed one year when it comes to hosting an outdoor game. From Winter Classics to Heritage Classics and onto the Stadium Series and the Centennial Classic, the league has held 19 regular season games outside since 2003.
For some time now, they’ve received some criticism from fans and others regarding the overuse of the outdoor classics as props to drive profitability. And yet, the games continue to sell out and fans always seem to enjoy the experience. To date, the league has seen a total attendance of nearly 1.1 million people at their 19 outdoor games – averaging almost 55,500 per event.
But the league continually makes changes in an attempt to develop their product for future events. This time around, it was in celebration of the 100 year anniversary of the league and the centennial mark of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ franchise.
Still, there were those who questioned the need for another four outdoor games during the 2016-17 season.
A Nostalgic Reminder
But the reminder of good old-time pond hockey is why the league continues to push these events. Sure, they make a pretty penny of the games as well, but there’s something more to them.
For those of you who grew up playing on a backyard rink or a local pond, there’s a sense of nostalgia to watching professionals playing on rinks built to withstand the outdoors. Sure, the boards and the 50,000-plus fans can take away from it a bit, but for the players, they have a chance to fall in love with the game they call a job all over again.
“I grew up outdoors,” said Maple Leafs’ forward Leo Komarov. So for him, it was almost like being a kid all over again. And like it was back in our days of playing on backyard rinks, things don’t always go as planned.
The Red Wings’ coach Jeff Blashill compared outdoor games like weddings noting that things don’t always turn out perfectly. Sometimes there are elements to battle – the sun for example, as was the case at the Centennial Classic – but it’s part of the game at least for one day.
The weekends that are built around these outdoor classics are special too. Old is introduced to new. Fans are offered the chance to watch some of the greatest players who’ve played the game – the Gretzkys, Oates, Sittlers and Larionovs. And those players get to suit up again for the teams they gave everything to represent.
The Centennial Classic
This particular event – the Centennial Classic in Toronto – offered the league a chance to remind fans how this all came to be. They announced the first 33 players on the list of top 100 and started their journey with the Stanley Cup across Canada and the United States.
But the league also go the chance to celebrate one of its most storied franchises – the Maple Leafs. They honoured a number of former Leafs with the announcement of the first 33 top 100 players including Dave Keon, Red Kelly and Johnny Bower who were all in attendance.
The Alumni Game gave a couple of generations of players a chance to don the blue and white once again and even allowed the new Leafs a chance to mingle with players that came before them. The previous generations leaving their wisdom with those that now sport the Maple Leaf.
And former players like Keon didn’t hold back on reminding folks that it’s still early for the modern-day Leafs in their journey back to success.
“I think probably the young players now have to improve and keep improving and I think in the next year or two years into the draft and some of the players that they have in the minors, develop them and develop an attitude of competing and not sitting back after having a little bit of success,” said the former Leaf great. “I think that’s counterproductive.”
“You have to keep pushing and it seems that some of the young players are playing very, very well and they’re learning as they go,” he finished.
More Outdoor Hockey?
To see the importance of the game, fans and even those covering it have to look past just the game that was played on the surface of BMO Field. The nostalgia for players, the fun that was put back into the game with outdoor events like the Centennial Classic, that’s why the NHL continues to push these outdoor events (along with the profitable growth of the game as well).
Are there too many? Maybe. But for fans who attend and players who take part in the games, it might never get old. That’s why NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman doesn’t see an end to the outdoor classics – at least not in 2017-18.
The NHL is looking at holding three outdoor games next season, per Gary Bettman.
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) January 1, 2017
“I think when we did the Olympics, what, in Sochi, we actually did five games that year. We did one going out to the Olympics, one coming back,” said Bettman. “We’re focused on a game on the same day that we played our first game. Obviously, we’re focused on a Winter Classic. So my guess is we’re probably talking about three games next year, give or take, but none have been finalized.”
So it seems, Olympics or not, that outdoor NHL hockey is not going anywhere yet. Regardless how you feel about it, it does have a truly interesting impact on the league and the game of hockey.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.