Depending on who you ask, playing a regular season NHL game outdoors is blasphemy, while others feel hockey has always been an outdoor sport – so it’s no big deal.
Tonight, the Chicago Cubs, oops, I mean Blackhawks, host the Pittsburgh Penguins in the final game of this year’s Coors Light NHL Stadium Series. While the League tries to find ways to reinvent itself – to increase profits and stay ahead of their competition – there’s no disputing that most of these outdoor games have been a work-in-progress. Poor ice conditions – crews having to fix the ice by delaying or even stopping a game at times – to downright bone-chilling temps, have had an impact on the outcome of games.
On top of all of that, players are asked to partake in the festivities – by helping to mark the ‘special’ day by mingling with fans, celebrities and so forth – taking away from their typical game-day routines. Why is this such a big issue you may ask?
Well, the Blackhawks can’t afford to get caught up in the festive atmosphere these days. Losers of their previous outdoor game, 6-4 to the Detroit Red Wings in 2009 at Wrigley Field, they find themselves in the midst of a tight race in the Western Conference for first place overall – home ice throughout the playoffs was key for Chicago, as it helped them capture the Stanley Cup last year.
The Blackhawks have lost two straight games to teams – the lowly Phoenix Coyotes and then to the New York Rangers – they should have beaten. In turn, they trail the Anaheim Ducks by 5 points for Western Conference supremacy. Not to mention, the Blackhawks are neck-and-neck with the St. Louis Blues – who acquired goaltender Ryan Miller yesterday – for first place in the Central Division and the Blues only got better by acquiring Miller from the Buffalo Sabres.
There are 21 games remaining for Chicago, two fewer than St. Louis, as the regular season winds down. Each passing game will have an impact on playoff seeding, which could factor in if the Blackhawks repeat as Cup champs.
A few weeks ago, Chicago has seen temps dip into the low -40s and the wind chill did not help matters. Around this time of the year, the Chicago weather can unpredictable and there’s a good chance we’ll see flurries tonight and that could impact visibility for players.
The Stadium series has worked, thus far. Over 100,000 fans attend the outdoor games and the NHL has saw record ratings for three games, to date. However, the NHL executives need to ask themselves can they still find ways to generate revenue without potentially jeopardizing the playoff picture?
Players have admitted that these events remain a double-edged sword – they can be with their loved ones as families are allowed to be on the ice during the festivities. Although, they’ve said that the weather can impact the focus in a tight divisional race – and that’s something they’ll have to get used to, as these outdoor games are here to stay for the foreseeable future.
Broadcast journalist, writer and radio jock.