The NHL is Melting the Ice on Outdoor Hockey

It was a lazy Saturday night, and I just happened to be flipping through the channel guide to see what would be worth while to watch on Sunday afternoon. There was the Daytona 500, a few NBA games, College Basketball and two NHL games listed on NBC.

One of those games happened to be another outdoor game. Yes, another.

I sat there and thought it might be interesting to see a few minutes of it, but nothing worth planning my day around.

That’s exactly what the NHL has done to outdoor hockey.

It’s no longer the spectacle it once was in 2008 or 2009, it’s been watered down to a mere “special game” that the NHL does three or four times a season. It’s great for the cities that get to host them, but for a casual hockey fan, or even hardcore hockey fans of other teams, there is no incentive to watch anymore. Miss the first one? No problem, there’s three other times in the next two months that you can catch an outdoor game.

It’s even worse for the casual fan that tunes in to a few games per season. Good luck trying to explain to them that the Winter Classic is the NHL’s marquee regular season event, but oh by the way, they do the same thing three other times a year now. How is that going to persuade someone that outdoor hockey is something that should be celebrated?

The proof is in the ratings. From 2008 to 2014, the game averaged 4.1 million viewers in the United States. That’s going up against direct competition with College Football on New Years. Pretty impressive if you ask me.

The NHL implemented the Stadium Series after the 2014 Winter Classic. In the two Classic’s since then (2015 in Washington, 2016 in Foxborough) the game has averaged 3.1 million viewers. That is a substantial drop off.

The 2014 Stadium Series game between Chicago and Pittsburgh did fetch very high ratings, but it’d be hard to say that is related to interest on a national scale. Chicago and Pittsburgh are two huge hockey markets, and Chicago was fresh off of a Stanley Cup win.

Despite the 2014 Stadium Series producing underwhelming ratings, the 2014 Winter Classic was particularly impressive. That Classic was the second most watched in the US (4.1 million) and the most watched combined (US and Canada, 8.2 million). What makes that so impressive is that 104,491 potential viewers were in the seats at the Big House; the NHL saw a ratings and attendance success.

That success is long gone. So what happens now?

The NHL has some serious decisions to make.

Early reports stated that the Flyers and Penguins will likely be playing an outdoor game for their 50th anniversaries. What isn’t set in stone is whether that will be a Stadium Series game or the Winter Classic.

Make no bones about it, the Flyers and Penguins have arguably the best rivalry in the NHL, and when they met in the playoffs back in 2012, it produced a wild series that was a ratings extravaganza for the league.

The NHL would be making a huge mistake by not making this the regular season’s marquee event. Furthermore, they’d be making a bigger mistake by adding Stadium Series games that would draw away from the luster of a Winter Classic between two huge rivals.

Outdoor games bring hockey back to its roots. They’re great for the cities that get to host them, but on a national scale, having just one a year is better for the NHL because it gets more people to watch the game. This is what the NHL needs to revert back to.