How can you not love the NHL's Winter Classic? It's an exciting day, with national TV coverage, pomp and circumstance, all coupled with the beauty of outdoor hockey.
And the massive media coverage makes the Winter Classic feel at least as important as a Bowl game.
It's huge for the NHL.
But taking the media attention and aesthetic beauty out of the equation, the Winter Classic is also a celebration of hockey's outdoor roots. Thousands upon thousands of players grew up learning the game outside. The Winter Classic helps pay tribute to all of the people who don't get to play hockey in rinks.
So why doesn't the NHL finish the tribute?
If part of the Winter Classic is to pay tribute to the spirit of pond hockey, why not open it up, the way pond hockey is open?
Most people playing outdoor hockey aren't playing on a regulation sheet of ice. They're probably playing on a frozen body of water that's much larger. And there's a good change the games aren't played five-on-five. In fact, the number of players on the ice at any given moment depends on who's available to play. It could be seven-on-seven or it could be three-on-three. It could even be one-on-one.
If the NHL wants to capture that spirit, they could use a larger sheet of ice, like what's used in the Olympics. But an easier way to capture the spirit of pond hockey might be to let the players go at it four-on-four, opening up the ice.
Four-on-four hockey makes sense outdoors, because it makes it that much harder for players to clog the neutral zone and slow the game down.
In the last three Winter Classics, we haven't seen much speed, since the condition of the ice and the weather are such huge factors. It's tough for players to maintain control of the puck and get off a good shot, so they focus on keeping the puck flat and pounding in shots from the blue line.
While the 2009 game at Wrigley Field saw 10 goals scored, it seemed mostly because of wind, and not necessarily because of player skill, although the fact that two offensive teams (Chicago and Detroit) were playing certainly impacted the final score.
But just two goals were scored in the 2009 game in Buffalo, which ended with the Penguins winning in a shootout.
This year's Winter Classic featured two defense-oriented teams, and you saw the results in the final score: Just two goals in regulation and one in overtime.
And about that overtime: Philadelphia had the puck on their sticks a few times, right along the Boston goalmouth, but the ice was so bad from the third period, it wouldn't settle.
So rather than putting the game away, the Flyers didn't score—and Boston did, right on the next possession.
On the one hand, you have two teams playing on equally bad ice under equally tough conditions. On the other hand, because of those conditions, you didn't see great hockey. Instead, you saw a lot of missed passes and a lot of guys chasing pucks.
It doesn't make for the most entertaining hockey.
But open things up to four-on-four, as they were during the overtime, and throw in some clean ice, and suddenly the game really is shiny, with action up and down the ice.
The Winter Classic is a marvelous event, but it could be better. If it really is supposed to be a tribute to the outdoor games so many NHLers grew up playing, why not open up the ice via four-on-four and let the fans get even more of a sense of what the game was like before there were linesmen and referees and whistles and franchises?
Fewer players will make speed even more important to victory. Players will actually be able to pass the puck laterally.
And fans will get to see what the game was like for players before they were professionals.