The NHL has a monster on its hands. How they use it will be up to them.
This monster could turn the league around, soaring it into the glory days of the past, or it could turn on the league, and ruin a promising event if handled the wrong way.
What I am talking about of course is the NHL Winter Classic.
This year’s Winter Classic had the highest ratings for a regular-season hockey game in over 34 years!
The New Years game was tuned into by an average of 4.4 million U.S. viewers throughout the broadcast (according to NBC, CBC.ca) to watch the Detroit Red Wings win 6-4 over the Chicago Blackhawks at Wrigley Field.
Remember, these 4.4 million viewers do not count the viewers in Canada either, which of course where extremely high.
In last year’s game alone, for example, between the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins, CBC had an average audience of 1.170 million viewers watching the game.
Even just using last years numbers, it is pretty safe to say that around five million people watched the NHL Winter Classic this season.
And these high rating came with college bowl games that featured top 25 teams and/or storied programs (Georgia versus Michigan State and Nebraska versus Clemson).
Now the question that the NHL should be looking at with all of their man power is how do they built the league for the good, off of the great momentum.
It really is quite simple to do, and they can accomplish it in a few simple steps.
1. One a Year and Leave it to the NHL ONLY
If anyone in the leagues office even considers making this any more than a one game a year event, he should be slapped in the back of the head and handed a pink slip.
This is a great tradition the NHL has on its hands now. One a year is a way to go to keep the hype up for this spectacular event.
It has to stick to the NHL only, too.
While you can’t really stop a college team from doing it, the NHL has to make sure the AHL does not follow suit with an outdoor game.
I was reading through various blogs and other Web sites, where I saw that multiple AHL teams were looking into outdoor games. It made me sick.
Sure they have a right to do it, but this is a game for the NHL where the top players can perform.
I’m sorry, but the casual hockey fan, especially in the United States, would not want to watch a bunch of no names play in a meaningless minor league game.
Would I watch the game, yes. Mostly to see some of the prospects on that certain team that is playing. However, most of the United States would turn to a different channel. Even some in Canada, too.
Thanks for raising young talent AHL, but leave it to the pro league to have the outdoor games.
2. Continue to Pick Matchups That Attract Both Canadian and American Viewers
As much as I would love to see two Canadian teams go at it in the next Winter Classic, this will not attract the amount of American viewers that the league wants.
Let’s be honest here: Canadian hockey fans are passionate about the game of hockey. If you put an interesting matchup in front of them, with a little bit of star power, they will certainly tune in, even if their favorite team isn’t playing.
With hockey looking to be on the rise in America, they should continue to have two United States teams play in the game for the next two seasons and then sprinkle in the Canadian teams slowly.
I know how much hockey means to Canada, but with a strong fan base already in place there and with 24 of the 30 teams of the NHL operating in the United States, the game has to feature teams that play in the US to attract viewers.
Like I said, in about two-three years, the league should be able to go to Canadian teams being in it, maybe even the two teams both coming from Canada, but for now, the NHL has to go after the large market NHL teams in the US to get their product out to the most people.
Here are two matchups that could be a possibility to look at in next year’s game:
Washington Capitals versus Pittsburgh Penguins, at PNC Park or Nationals Park
Yes, I know that PNC Park is small and the Penguins already had their shot at the Winter Classic earlier, but Sidney Crosby is the poster boy of the NHL (and just an off-topic note: I hate Crosby! I can’t stand him. No. 8 of Washington is better by a long shot and Crosby might not even be the best player on his team. That is a different topic for a different day so I’ll move on).
If you ask a casual hockey fan who Sidney Crosby is, they will be able to tell you. Heck, if you just watched ESPN you would think Crosby is a god at hockey and the only good player in the league.
He is the most marketed guy in the NHL right now and he has to be in another big game in the national sports scene. He alone will draw viewers to the game.
As for the location, PNC Park is not that bad of a place to watch the game. Yes it is small, seating only 38,496 people but Wrigley Field isn’t much bigger, seating only about 3,000 more people (41,118). You don’t really have that much of an option though for the different locations in Pittsburgh.
The grass of Heinz Field will certainly be off limits with a playoff football team playing there. Sure, the Steelers could miss the playoffs next year, but they will not put their field at risk. It has enough problems of its own, not to mention what a hockey rink on it will do to it.
Another option would be to play the game in Washington DC.
The nation’s capital has the new Nationals Stadium to work with, which seats 41,222 (more than Wrigley Field) but also has a good amount of standings room.
I was lucky enough (well maybe lucky isn’t the right word) to go to Nationals Stadium, and it was a nice, roomy ball park. It would be very interesting to see a hockey game played there.
This game not only has the star power but it has a reliable Pittsburgh market to go along with the large market of DC. Viewers from both the US and Canada will certainly tune into this one to see the three brightest stars in the NHL take the ice.
New Jersey Devils at New York Rangers (New Yankee Stadium)
After the old Yankee Stadium was known for things other than baseball, why not start off the new era of the stadium with an outdoor hockey game?
You want a large, US market? How about one of the biggest in the country in New York City?
You need star power? Martin Brodeur, Henrik Lundqvist, Nikolai Zherdev, Zach Parise, and Patrik Elias could defiantly provide that for sure.
Not to mention that the new Yankee Stadium also has a large capacity of 52,325 people.
These two teams are also huge rivals in the league.
Large Market? Check
Star Power? Check
Rivalry Game? Check
It has all the makings for another great Winter Classic for the NHL.
3. Play the Home and Home Series with the Winter Classic
For once, I loved what the NHL did leading up to something big like this. It really wasn’t that complicated either.
Have the teams play a home-and-home series leading up to the Winter Classic!
It was genius! Having the Red Wings and Chicago play a game in Detroit a couple days before the game in Chicago was great and in turn made for an exciting hockey game, in which you could tell the two teams disliked one another.
Now don’t get me wrong, Detroit and Chicago was a big rivalry in itself, but by having them play just before the Winter Classic made it that much more intense.
4. Market the League and the Players
People might actually know what the NHL is now, and yet I have seen very little commercials on TV for the NHL. Really, I haven’t seen much hockey advertising at all except maybe the few Sprint ads out there.
With the high ratings, why not market the game of hockey?
The rating for the playoff last season were greatly improved of the past and yet the league didn’t really build off that.
The NHL All-Star game is coming up soon. Who knows what day? Can someone tell me? I only know that Pittsburgh and Montreal stuffed the ballot box.
The NHL is on the rise again and to get out to other people they have to market the league.
Heck if they start doing that, maybe in a few years when that stupid contract is over with Versus, maybe ESPN or another national channel will come calling for the product.
The NHL has unleashed a monster in the Winter Classic. If they can built off of it, the league will be back in the glory days soon, and people will not question whether it is a part of the “Big Four” or not.
People will know what the league is, who the star players are, and will actually follow the great game of hockey.
If it is not handled right though, or nothing comes from this success, the NHL will be pushed aside by the national media again, and will be the afterthought of the national sports scene.
It has finally started to come back on peoples minds now, but will it continue to?
Not if the league doesn’t handle it the right way.
I’m praying they do.