Should the NHL Expand Its Outdoor Schedule?

Jim Neveau, Senior NHL Correspondent

With the fifth annual NHL Winter Classic taking place this Monday, it seems to be an appropriate time to talk about the impact that the game has had on the league. Ever since that first snow-covered day at Ralph Wilson Stadium, the Classic and everything around it has taken off. Whether the spectacle takes place at a historic baseball stadium like Wrigley Field or a relative newcomer like Citizen’s Bank Park, the league’s signature regular season event draws in hardcore fans and casual observers alike. It appeals to a wide audience, and the league has attempted to take advantage of it in every way that they can.

Whether it is the inclusion of attractions around the venue, contests for fans to win trips to the game, or the wildly popular HBO series “24/7”, the Winter Classic is more than just one game in an 82 game season. For some viewers, it represents a one-off shot to determine whether or not they will become hooked on the sport.

With the magnitude of the game becoming larger every year, it isn’t surprising that there are rumors swirling that the league could be considering adding more outdoor games to its schedule. Last year’s inclusion of the Heritage Classic in the schedule may be a hint of things to come in this area. Chris Johnston of The Canadian Press had this nugget in a piece about NHL COO John Collins:

A second game was played at Calgary’s McMahon Stadium last season and Collins seems warm to the idea seeing multiple outdoor dates on the schedule again in the future. That model gives the league a chance to start satisfying the demand from teams wanting in on the action.

“Absolutely, there should be more Canadian teams in these games,” said Collins. “Just like teams like Minnesota should be involved and St. Louis should be involved and Colorado should be involved — you can just keep going on and on.”

Since Collins took a job with the NHL in August 2008, the league has constructed its calendar around big events. It’s reasonable to assume that additional outdoor games could be used to bolster the lineup.

This excerpt does raise an interesting question: should the league, which treats the Winter Classic like the crown jewel of its TV schedule (and rightly so), expand the idea and feature more outdoor games outside of that January 1st window?

There are plenty of arguments on both sides of this, and some are relatively persuasive. For starters, there are a slew of teams that want in on the Winter Classic action, but likely would not be considered by NBC and the league because of their relatively small drawing power nationally. For instance, hardcore hockey fans have been clamoring for the Minnesota Wild to host an outdoor game, with most in that camp pushing for a matchup with the Dallas Stars. While that game between Minnesota’s present and past would be a huge draw to fans of the NHL, casual observers may not be attracted to the “star power” that guys like Kari Lehtonen and Mikko Koivu could bring to the table.

If the league does decide to feature more outdoor games on its schedule, it could likely find ways to get smaller market teams involved. One potential solution could be to feature an outdoor game during “Hockey Weekend in America”, an event that USA Hockey and NBC have been pushing for the past several years. Featuring an outdoor game as part of that doubleheader would make a great deal of sense, especially with the idea being that the league is embracing the game’s roots in those spectacles. A game in Minnesota or Denver could be a potentially solid draw in that slot, especially if paired with an Original Six matchup as the other part of the doubleheader.

If the NHL doesn’t want to go that route with American teams, they very well could return to the idea of the Heritage Classic as well. The game in Calgary last year was a big success, and the potential to showcase a Canadian team like the Maple Leafs or Canadiens would be a hit with hockey fans. TV concerns would likely limit the possibility of featuring one of those teams in the Winter Classic slot on New Year’s Day, but having more Heritage Classics is certainly something that the league should look at.

Even with these possibilities of more national exposure for smaller markets and Canadian teams, there is still the matter of “cheapening” the thrill of the Winter Classic. If the league decides to add additional outdoor games, would the Classic lose some of its luster? Would fans make other choices for their sports viewing if the matchup that the league comes up with doesn’t tantalize them? These questions are legitimate, and need to be discussed at length at the league’s offices before any decision is made.

There is also the matter of whether or not teams in more Southern areas would be permitted to host these types of games. The Stars would probably love to host a game at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas, and teams like San Jose and St. Louis could feasibly draw large crowds if they were allowed to host outdoor games. The ice surface held up remarkably well in balmy Pittsburgh last year, so would it be possible to include some non-traditional teams in a rotation of outdoor games? The answer to that question is likely no, but if the league starts adding games, there is going to be a huge clamoring from those types of teams to get in on a piece of the action, and that could be a PR issue for the NHL.

Ultimately, the league should decide to stick with only two outdoor games. The Winter Classic should remain in its spot on New Year’s Day, and the Canadian teams should get to rotate the Heritage Classic amongst themselves. Whether that includes American teams or not would be up to schedule makers to decide, but if the league wants to expand the outdoor schedule, then it should only do so to include the Heritage Classic on an annual basis.

Adding more games would not only cheapen the thrill that fans get from seeing the game played outside, but it would also lead to a deluge of teams angling to host that have no business doing so. While a St. Louis/Detroit game at Busch Stadium might be a great thing for the Blues, odds are that fans will not tune in to see a game involving the Blues at a venue that isn’t exactly steeped in history.

If the NHL truly believes that it doesn’t really matter which team plays in the Winter Classic (Collins compared the Classic to the Super Bowl, saying “It’s kind of that line that we use all the time: `Nobody ever cancelled their Super Bowl party because they didn’t like the two teams that were playing in the game”), then they should put their money where their mouth is and have next year’s Classic in St. Paul or Denver. If they can still draw the type of TV audience that they want, then they can make the argument that featuring different markets and more outdoor games is a viable option. Until then, the notion will persist that the quality of TV ratings is directly reflective of the quality of the TV markets involved, and the argument will still stand that they should not cheapen the Classic by bringing more teams from the arena to the great outdoors.