As the New Year’s celebrations begin to take place all over North America, the outdoor games the NHL has held over the last few years are in need of some change. Particularly, with the teams that are invited to participate.
Over the last four seasons, excluding the Heritage Classic which was designed for only teams from Canada, a total of 17 NHL teams have played in either the Stadium Series or Winter Classic. Some of these teams have played in more than one outdoor game.
Original 6 Gets You In
There have been six teams that have played more than once over the last four years, including some of the usual suspects. The Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Pittsburgh Penguins and the Los Angeles Kings have played multiple games.
The argument can be made that four of these teams are Original 6 teams while Pittsburgh and Los Angeles were part of the initial NHL expansion in 1967.
There are 11 other teams that have played in an outdoor NHL game over the last four years including both the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins. It is understandable that the Original 6 teams get this call from the NHL.
No Cold Front
What is harder to accept is that one of the best teams over this same time period — the Tampa Bay Lightning — have not even sniffed an invite to one of these games. Okay, so it may be difficult to stage an outdoor game in Florida even in January.
When we get a winter cold front in Tampa, it goes from 85 to 75 degrees and folks break out their sweaters. For Pete’s sakes, an outdoor game was held in Los Angeles a couple of years ago. The ice held up but it doesn’t have to be a home game for the Lightning.
The franchise would be overjoyed, as any NHL team would be, even if they played on the road in one of the outdoor games. It cannot be because the Lightning is not a good enough team to participate, as they have won more games over the last four seasons than 12 of the 17 teams.
NHL Icing out Tampa
Even if the NHL is looking at playoff success, the Lightning’s postseason performance should have sealed the deal for Tampa. Over the last four seasons (three playoff years), only one team has won more playoff games than the Lightning’s 25 postseason victories — Chicago with 30 playoff wins has the most of the outdoor teams.
Perhaps it is the TV ratings that the NHL is looking at to decide who gets to play outside. If so, they really ought to look at Tampa more closely. Reviewing the Stanley Cup TV ratings over the last 10 years and the 2015 series between the Blackhawks and the Lightning had the second highest ratings with a 3.2 average share for all six games.
Only the 2013 series between Chicago and Boston had a higher rating share with a 3.3. This translates to an average of 5.8 million viewers compared to the 5.6 million watching the Lightning – Blackhawks series.
Maybe it is because the NHL doesn’t feel the Lightning have enough star power. That particular argument doesn’t hold water when you think of Steven Stamkos and Ben Bishop. When you add young and rising stars such as Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, Victor Hedman and Jonathan Drouin and it makes one wonder just what the NHL is looking for in a team to be outdoor worthy.
It cannot be the front office. The Lightning have a Hall of Fame player at the helm in Steve Yzerman. Could be that the league office is unaware of the world-class ownership led by Jeffrey Vinik here in Tampa.
If anyone in the NHL office investigates, they will see what Vinik’s ownership has meant to both the franchise and the city of Tampa. Perhaps, they would learn that the Vinik Foundation donates $50,000 every single regular season home game to a local non-profit organization or individual that provides service in the community.
Frankly, it is inconceivable as to what the NHL requires for a team to be considered for an outdoor game. Whatever the qualifications are, people down here in Tampa are ready to make the case for our Lightning.
NHL Needs to Make the Call
You want stars, we got star power up the wazoo. Maybe the want a winning team. Might surprise them to know that Tampa is among the winningest teams over the last few years. You want postseason success, Lightning has that too. Do you want character and a world-class organization? Look at the tremendous work done by the franchise since Vinik bought the team in 2010.
The reasons for the lack of invitation sent down to Tampa escape most Lightning fans. They know they have one of the most talented teams in the league. They know over the last four seasons, the Bolts have been an elite NHL team. They’d just like to see them get the recognition to go along with the performance they have provided.
As a fan of hockey and in particular, the NHL, the outdoor games are must-see TV for me. It just would be nice to see the Lightning play the game outside in the cold. The way these players played the game when it was just for fun.
Born in Chicago, Illinois. Grew up playing and loving sports. Spent most of my formative years playing, debating, arguing and talking sports. for the last couple of years I have written about hockey. I am currently a Tampa Bay Lightning contributor for The Hockey Writers. I know that I may not always be right, but I am passionate about hockey and it is damn hard to hide that passion in my writing.