Critics of the NHL playing six outdoor games this season tend to come off like overzealous concerned parents. The Winter Classic is their beautiful baby—their only child—that must be protected from the aggressive children and treated like the special child it is.
That golden child—or goose, as Steve Yzerman called it—is getting a whole bunch of new siblings this season, starting with this weekend’s outdoor games between the Ducks and Kings at Dodger Stadium on Saturday and Rangers and Devils at Yankee Stadium on Sunday. Another game will take place in the Bronx on Wednesday between the Rangers and Islanders with three more outdoor games scheduled over the rest of the season.
Is it overkill? Will the NHL’s money-making only child wither now that all these other children require attention? Or will they all be revenue-generating monsters that keep Gary Bettman and John Collins swimming in money at the NHL offices like Scrooge McDuck?
Are six outdoor games in one season too many?
To me, six outdoor games in one season aren’t enough.
The NHL can print money thanks to the Winter Classic since 2008. Since that inaugural event between the Penguins and Sabres, the league has earned millions of dollars thanks to ticket sales, advertising and sponsorship deals. The 2014 Winter Classic between the Red Wings and Maple Leafs made a record $20 million profit, according to Christopher Botta of Sports Business Journal.
As a point of comparison for those numbers: The previous Winter Classic, the 2012 edition at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, is believed to have made $15 million in revenue against costs of $10 million. Additionally, considering the $30 million in revenue from this year’s Winter Classic: That compares to a typical regular-season game for the NHL’s most successful teams — including Toronto, Chicago, Montreal and the New York Rangers — bringing in between $2 million and $3 million.
For local businesses, the Winter Classic is also a dream come true. According to a story in the Ann Arbor News, the runoff money is also through the roof at a time when otherwise nothing would be happening:
Many hotels, bars and restaurants were preparing for record New Year's sales numbers, but could be left with normal, or even below-average holiday traffic. Sefcovic said that his hotel was nearly entirely booked for the weekend already despite a two-night minimum booking requirement.
“This was going to be like an extra football weekend for us,” he said.
Spinoff revenue from previous Winter Classics in Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have been reported to be between $22 and $36 million, far more than the $14 million generated from Michigan home football games.
There isn't a team in the league that doesn't want to be part of an outdoor game, and there isn't a city with local business that doesn't want to reap the ancillary benefits.
The Stadium Series games won’t be as successful, and they don’t need to be to work. The Ducks-Kings game appears to be the most problematic despite featuring two of the league’s top teams in a unique, warm-weather market. The NHL has had to lower ticket prices for that game, which still isn’t close to sold-out.
That’s the case for the Rangers-Islanders contest. Plenty of tickets are still available.
But the other three games are either sold-out or will be very close to it. Rangers-Devils has been sold-out for weeks, while the Penguins-Blackhawks contest at Soldier Field in Chicago on March 1 and Senators-Canucks at BC Place in Vancouver the following the day will likely get there in the next six weeks.
Even if the NHL doesn’t sell one additional ticket for any of these outdoor games, it will still rake in millions that it otherwise wouldn’t. The league will still receive an additional exposure it otherwise would not. There will still be fans buying jerseys and hats that they otherwise would not.
It’s going to be a flood of hockey-related revenue that the NHL has essentially created out of thin air. When NHL employees receive their year-end bonus checks that are based on the revenue generated by the league, there will be no question if six games were too much.
The beauty of having all these games is that the NHL, while it wants to grow nationally and globally, remains a very regionalized sport. The Winter Classic will continue to be a success as long as popular, big-market teams are used in the game. The Stadium Series will do nothing to weaken that golden goose, and it also gives fans in other markets a chance at the outdoor experience.
|NHL Outdoor Games During 2013-14 Season|
|DET-TOR||Jan. 1||Michigan Stadium||105,491||TOR, 3-2 (SO)|
|ANA-LAK||Jan. 25||Dodger Stadium||???||???|
|NYR-NJD||Jan. 26||Yankee Stadium||???||???|
|NYR-NYI||Jan. 29||Yankee Stadium||???||???|
|CHI-PIT||Mar. 1||Soldier Field||???||???|
|VAN-OTT||Mar. 2||BC Place||???||???|
If you’re a fan of the Kings, Ducks, Rangers, Devils, Islanders, Blackhawks, Penguins, Senators or Canucks, a Winter Classic taking place somewhere else in North America a month or two earlier won’t affect your desire to see your favorite team in a similar game.
The lag in ticket sales to the Dodger Stadium game and second Yankee Stadium contest speak more to the fervency of the Los Angeles market and the redundancy of a second game in the same location less than a week apart. It’s not about a diminishing interest in outdoor games—it’s about the league using these six games to decide which markets will be the biggest profit centers for these types of games.
On Saturday, 45,201 fans turned out for a college hockey game between Minnesota and Ohio State at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. According to a story in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, it’s the largest crowd ever to watch a hockey game in the state of Minnesota.
If you think the NHL isn’t paying mind to the turnout for that game, you’re wrong.
This season’s five extra outdoor games will be a litmus test. Is it worth it to have games in warm-weather markets with smaller fanbases? Are two games in one venue so close together a good idea? Are people less likely to attend a Wednesday night game than an afternoon game on a weekend day? Should ticket prices be trimmed slightly for games in certain markets?
Outdoor games are special for the fans and money-makers for the league. As long as that continues to be true, there’s no reason to believe even more outdoor games will happen in the coming years as the NHL perfects the craft.
Here are some stray thoughts about hockey:
•Statistically speaking, Mats Zuccarello had an impressive start to his NHL career after winning an MVP award in Sweden in 2010. He had 11 goals and 28 points in 67 games, but the problem was they took place over three seasons as he dealt with injury, inconsistency and an inability to consistently crack John Tortorella's lineup. After a stint in the KHL, he has blossomed under new coach Alain Vigneault this season. He has 13 goals and 35 points in 50 games in a system that is more rewarding of skill than grit and shot-blocking.
"I decided to play my game now," Zuccarello said.
•Henrik Sedin's consecutive games played streak ended at 679 on Tuesday, the sixth-longest streak in NHL history. He played in Sweden for MODO during the 2004-05 lockout, which was the last time he missed a game because of injury. And boy was it an injury—he had to miss time after surgery to have the tip of his pinky amputated. He still played in 44 of 50 games that season. Toughness comes in all forms. Just because Sedin isn't a physical player or a fighter doesn't mean for a second he's not one of the toughest players in the league.
•With John Tortorella starting an unpaid 15-day vacation, assistant coach Mike Sullivan is taking over behind the Canucks bench. He hasn't acted as a head coach since the 2005-06 season with the Boston Bruins, who finished 29-37-16. His final game as coach of the Bruins was a 4-3 loss to the Atlanta Thrashers, who were coached by current Flames coach Bob Hartley.
•Lost in that Flames-Canucks kerfuffle was early that night, the Red Wings benefited from one of the biggest blown calls in recent seasons. The Red Wings were able to tie the Kings in the final seconds when a shot popped high off the protective netting behind the net, bounced off goaltender Jonathan Quick's back and into the net. It's almost impressive that none of the four officials on the ice tracked the puck, but it's quite embarrassing that the NHL doesn't have anything on the books that allows the situation to be reviewed in Toronto. As is the case with nearly every rule change in the NHL, this will likely be rectified now that the screw-up has happened publicly.
Hockey rule question: why wasn't a whistle blown before the puck-in-the-goalie-pants goal? Clearly the ref lost sight of the puck. Or, as it can appear on the video, he didn't lose sight and knew that the puck wasn't playable.
Here is the explanation of the goal that occurred right before Christmas (this letter has been sitting in my email for a while, so sorry) from the NHL:
At 3:47 of overtime in the Coyotes/Sabres game, video review supported the referee's call on the ice that Mark Pysyk's shot deflected into the air and landed in goaltender Mike Smith's equipment and, while attempting to make the save, Smith's momentum propelled him and the puck completely across the goal line. Good goal Buffalo.
To quote automobile expert Mona Lisa Vito, the defense's case does not hold water.
Smith was neither "attempting to make the save" nor did his "momentum" carry him into the net. A puck landed in his pants, which was not a save, and he skated and slid into his net of his own free will. The puck didn't hit him and drive him into the net.
If there was ever a perfect instance of a referee needing to blow a whistle because he lost sight of the puck, this was it.
The play should have been blown dead or at the very least, upon review, been ruled no goal. Yes, this is a three-week-old story, but the Coyotes are fighting for their playoff lives in the West. Should they fall one point short of the final Wild Card spot, this overtime loss to the Sabres will be a hidden reason for it.
When players are fined, the money goes to the Players' Emergency Assistance Fund. The money goes to retired players who are in need of financial assistance for a variety of reasons. The Boston Globe's Fluto Shinzawa wrote about it recently, and it's worth your time.
When coaches are fined, the money goes to the NHL Foundation. That's the NHL's charitable and community relations arm. It includes Hockey Fights Cancer and Hockey Is for Everyone.
So if you see renovations being done to a local rink or a children's hospital, you may have to thank John Tortorella and Bob Hartley for it.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveLozo. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.