Is a Canadiens vs Bruins Winter Classic Really a Good Idea?

Now that the 2015 NHL Winter Classic is in the books, fans and analysts alike are throwing their proverbial hat in the ring in form of suggestions for next year’s event. A particular match-up has gained momentum in the past week. There seems to be growing enthusiasm surrounding an outdoor meeting pitting the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens. As the most recognizable, oldest and bitterer rivalry in hockey, it is seen as a no-brainer, a sure-fire success, a classic for the Winter Classic, but is it?

So Late, So Soon

Whether it’s the sport of hockey or the business of hockey, timing is everything. In the salary cap era, parity rules and team’s window of success keeps getting narrower and narrower. Teams commit long term to a core of 5 or 6 players and the rest is a carousel of supporting cast that change almost yearly. This year’s classic saw the Chicago Blackhawks visit the Washington Capitals in what was a decent hockey game. This particular match-up could’ve gone a lot differently had it been held last year. The Capitals were going adrift under coach Adam Oates who just couldn’t get his message and philosophy through to his players. A change in coaching along with better goaltending and the addition of supporting players turned Washington’s fortune around and they are now in contention for a playoff spot. Who knows what’s in store for the Caps next year.

The Boston Bruins are merely a shadow of their 2011 Cup winning team. Burdened with heavy contracts, the Bruins are underachieving while having one of the heaviest payrolls in the league. Captain Zdeno Chara is 37 years old and being 6’9, 255lbs in the fastest sport not requiring a engine is catching up to him. Injuries are starting to come out and his ice time is dwindling every year since he won the Norris. The Bruins still have $24,750,000 committed to him until the end of the 2017-18 season  Milan Lucic can’t justify his $6 million/year salary now that linemates Nathan Horton and Jarome Iginla are gone, and that centre man David Krejci has been on the sideline for most of the season. Marc Savard is still on the Bruins’ payroll for this season and the next two at the cost of $4 million a year. This has resulted in the Bruins’ blueline being decimated yearly. Boston’s prospects on defence are having hard time carrying their workload which leads to Tukka Rask taking too many shots, allowing too many goals, and that leads to the Bruins losing too many games. Last year’s playoff run was a swan song for the Bruins as we know them. Things will get worse before they get better in Boston. Claude Julien’s club is in a tough position, in a tough division, to make the playoffs this year. They will need to do some heavy retooling in the off-season, if not a full-on rebuild, on about enough cap space to buy a cup of coffee. While the Canadiens seem to get better each year. The Habs already have a 3-0 record against the B’s this season. This could be a mismatch ending in a blowout.

Wrigley Field, Decked Out for the Winter Classic
Wrigley Field, Decked Out for the Winter Classic

Location, Location, Location

The outdoor game can’t be held in Montreal. There are simply no venue in the city that could hold that kind of event. The Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League play in an outdoor stadium at McGill University, but even with the recent renovations, still hold only 25,000 people. The Montreal Impact of Major League Soccer play at Saputo Stadium that can seat 20,000 people. Even the two venues combined barely meet the seating capability the NHL is looking for that type of event. The Olympic Stadium has been pointed to as a possible site but that’s just not realistic. First, it’s inside, hard to market and outdoor game held inside. Second of all if you’ve lived in Montreal or know a bit about the city then you are aware that the Big O has been a curse on the city. A gigantic, poorly designed, poorly constructed billion dollar mess. The roof was designed to be retractable but broke and was never fixed due to costs and was instead replaced by a Kevlar tarp. Turns out the tarp isn’t as solid as imagined. It ripped 3,400 times in 2013 alone (you read that right, it’s not a typo) . Two inches of snow is enough to cancel an event in the winter and the Quebec population is hesitant to invest the 300 million necessary for roof reparations to the 1.47 billion dollar already poured in the Big Owe over the past 40 years and even if they did, the roof would be nowhere near ready for next year’s game.

So Boston it is. The Gillette Stadium was penciled in for a possible venue. Their 70,000 seats no doubt has NHL brass salivating. This would mean that the Patriots would have to play their last game of the season on the road. It is hard to believe that the Bruins would dislodge the mighty Patriots out of their home when they have to yield their own barn to the Celtics and play afternoon games when both teams are in the playoffs. So Fenway would be the logical site for the game. The NHL already held a Winter Classic on Red Sox turf in 2010 and with the novelty of the outdoor game wearing off,  the league won’t help the criticism they receive of going to the same well too many times. With a possibility of 14 teams, only 9 teams took part in the classic. Boston would join the Flyers, Penguins, Capitals, Red Wings and Blackhawks in the 2-time club.

It’s About Tradition… Right?

An idea that was tossed around was to post-pone Montreal – Boston game by one year and have them play the 2017 Winter Classic, on the league’s 100th anniversary. Having two Original Six teams meet in the Winter Classic. The NHL loves banking on tradition they totally made up. Starting with the original six, the Canadiens (founded in 1909) playing against the Bruins (founded 1926) on the 100th anniversary of the NHL (founded 1917). In the same setting the game originated, right? Wrong, the first ever official hockey game was played in 1875 at the Victoria skating rink in Montreal, an indoor rink. In fact, you have to fast-forward 79 years for the first NHL outdoor game when the Detroit Red Wings faced the Pirates Athletic Club of the Marquette Branch Prison in 1954. Such a rich history.

The Winter Classic is an occasion to grow the sport’s viewership in the United States (advertising) which is totally fine. The NHL owes it to it’s investors and team owners to turn a profit and it’s one of the way the league chose to make money. This is why the Canadiens are one of the worse choices for this event. There aren’t many people that have yet to be convinced that hockey is fun in Montreal. The outdoor game won’t help growing the league’s viewership in Canada. Viewership in America could suffer too. The Winter Classic is more often than not the most watched hockey game of the year in the United States. A lot has to do with teams like the Blackhawks, Red Wings and Rangers. Teams that have huge followings outside of their markets. Adding to the mix, the repeated appearance of the Penguins with Sidney Crosby constantly being billed as the best hockey player in the world. The Bruins and Habs are very well liked in their market but not so much outside of it. The Canadiens, with their history of beating everyone else’s favorite team and the french-canadian factor are not the ideal candidate to win over American hockey fans.

Zero-Sum Game

The Canadiens can’t bring anything to the Classic and the Classic can’t bring anything to the Habs. Anyway you choose to see it, it’s right. Fan favorites surrounding the outdoor game are throwback jerseys (like this year’s Capitals jersey that was a throwback to never) and the behind the scenes TV show, 24/7, road to winter classic, whatever you want to call it. The Canadiens already have 24CH, a season-long behind the scenes show. There might be production and rights issues. The league produced show is televised in Canada on Sportsnet/TVA Sports while the Canadiens produced show is on the rival TSN/RDS. One of the two will have to cede to the other and money will be lost.

Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price
Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price

In their centennial season, the Montreal Canadiens released 5 jerseys worn throughout their history.  All very historically accurate but none of them particularly eye-pleasing. The Habs would have to rehash one of the jersey, that wasn’t selling that well to begin with, from 5 years ago or completely invent a new one. Something that I can’t imagine a team so proud of it’s history, like the Canadiens, doing. Even if the Canadiens organization has been doing a better job at keeping up with the 21st century under the new management, the team hasn’t had so much as a third jersey since that centennial season.

The Winter Classic is a modern day circus, an giant attraction to try to cash in on the sport’s popularity in the northeast of the U.S. while trying to grow its fanbase for the future. Months of promotion, tv show, sports panels lead to that 3 hour-long infomercial with bad weather and worse ice that hopefully lead to a big pile of money. Putting the Montreal Canadiens in the NHL Winter Classic would be like putting a fine wine in a soda vending machine. Sure, some people would appreciate it but it’s not what the machine was designed for.