Now the Winter Classic is gone.
The NHL seems intent on tearing down its season piece by piece, and cancelling the Winter Classic (source: NHL.com) between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings at Michigan Stadium is its latest piece of demolition.
Approximately 115,000 fans (source: New York Times) were expected to attend the game, which has become a treasured property for the NHL.
The NHL first started playing the outdoor game on New Year’s Day in 2008 when the Buffalo Sabres hosted Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins at Ralph Wilson Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills.
The game, played in typical Buffalo winter weather, had the look of a hockey scene inside a snow globe.
It was ethereal and romantic. There were 71,217 fans in attendance, and they clearly loved the environment.
The league sold the game as going back to the sport’s roots.
Many hockey players had skated outdoors as youngsters and certainly so had many fans. Taking one game on New Year’s Day and playing it outdoors was an attempt to draw fans to the game.
They had a notion that it would work, but instead of getting mild applause or a lukewarm thumbs up, the outdoor game got a huge salute from marketing analysts, NBC and the fans.
Hockey is not known for its ratings, but fans tuned into see the Penguins and Sabres. The game went to overtime and then a shootout. Crosby scored the game-winner for the Penguins.
The NHL knew there was a sports television void on New Year’s Day. For generations, college football had commanded the day, but as that sport added more and more bowl games and spread them out, the New Year’s Day portion of the schedule grew less significant.
The NHL jumped into the void. It followed with games at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, Boston’s Fenway Park, Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field and Philadelphia’s Citizen’s Bank Ballpark.
The Winter Classic had become an instant institution.
With the cancellation of the this year’s Winter Classic, there is once again a void on New Year's Day.
Perhaps the NHL will be back in its familiar spot in 2014, though. There were immediate reports that the Toronto-Detroit game would be rescheduled at Michigan Stadium (source: Detroit News).
But it may not be quite so easy to keep that niche that the league had carved out for itself.
Perhaps those who run college football will realize that they let a valuable spot get away and do more with their New Year’s Day games once again.
The NBA has had success with its Christmas Day schedule, and it could stake out New Year’s Day as well.
The NFL took over New Year’s Day in 2012 because the holiday occurred on Sunday and it coincided with the last weekend of the regular season, but it’s probably not going to change its normal schedule.
So the NHL probably does not have to concern itself with the NFL’s future plans.
But NHL fans may no longer see this game as hockey at it’s purest. They may see it as a political and financial tool used to curry favor and make money.
The league will almost certainly try to resuscitate the game, but if there is significant competition it may not command the stage as it once did.
The NHL pulled the plug early because of all the costs associated with running the game. If it does not carry the same luster in the future, the run of the Winter Classic may indeed be a short one.