NHL Schedules: Winter Classic and Beyond

Matt SitkoffCorrespondent IJuly 20, 2009

Of the two big NHL scheduling events last Wednesday, the first announcement was the worst-kept secret—the annual Winter Classic will be held at Boston’s Fenway Park.

This outdoor festivity has quickly become a huge success for the NHL, as represented by great TV ratings and pure excitement around the New Year’s event.

Much of the debate has not been about the venue, as I think it should be, but about the teams that are involved. Some experts think that two-time Hart trophy winner, Alex Ovechkin, fresh off of his dominating regular season and playoffs, should be the showcase of this spectacle.

I don’t agree, for the simple reason that people will watch no matter who is playing. In 2008, a matchup that featured the big “rivals”, Penguins and Sabres, drew a 2.6 overnight rating and a 5 share for NBC. Last season, when two actual division rivals faced off, the Red Wings and Blackhawks earned a 2.9 overnight rating and a 6 share.

These are very impressive numbers for a sport drowning in obscurity.

I can back up the league, for once, in their selection of two major markets, Boston and Philadelphia, to participate. Hockey is very important in these cities, and deserves to be seen by its large number of fans residing there. Besides, we all know the NHL will be pushing for a Rangers game at Yankee Stadium next year, most likely against the Capitals and Ovechkin, so this is Bean-town and Philly’s year. 

Which brings me to the venues the league has selected this year. I understand they are trying to lure fans into ball parks with rich history, but they are limiting themselves by sheer numbers alone.

I think they had it right the first year with an NHL-record crowd of 71,217 in Ralph Wilson Stadium, a football stadium seating almost 74,000 people.  Now, all of sudden, they are limiting themselves to the only 30,000-40,000 fans that can fit into a baseball stadium. I'm not a marketing genius by any means, but I know that leaves about 40,000 less tickets they can sell.

The profit loss is obvious, but perhaps even more important is the “emotional” statistic of losing possible future fans for life that could have emerged from such a unique game experience. I heard that Beaver Stadium at Penn State (107,282 capacity), TCF Bank Stadium in Minnesota (50,000) and even Fed Ex Field (91,704) were considered, but the final vote went to the Green Monster?

The NHL has to get off this baseball kick and go back to football fields and get more people and fans involved in this wonderful idea.

The second event after the big non-surprise announcement was the releasing of the NHL regular season schedules. Other than the Chris Pronger debut as a Flyer, I have certain matchups circled on my calendar the first month of the season.

I will be watching the NHL Premier Games in Stockholm (Wings vs. Blues) and Helsinki (Blackhawks vs. Panthers), mostly to see how the Blues and Panthers have improved in the offseason.

But really, what I’m really watching for is how will the Red Wings bounce back. How will Hossa fit in with his new team? How will the world perceive the NHL this year?

In October, of course, there are a lot of debuts with new teams (Tavares, Hedman, Gaborik and the whole Canadiens) and players facing their old teams (Hossa on Oct 8, Pronger on Oct. 10, Kovalev on Oct. 17, Gaborik on Oct. 30). We even have two nights where all 30 NHL teams will be in action on October 3 and 24, and this is just in the first month of the season! We should be in for a great year.