What did sports fans think on New Year's Day five years ago? The answer, major college football bowl games.
The Rose Bowl has been the spotlight for sporting events on the first day of the year for nearly a century. Many other high-profile college programs play in major games every year.
The Cotton Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, and even the Champs Sports Bowl feature high profile college programs.
Fast forward to this year. What was also in people's minds as they rang in the New Year? Ice hockey.
The Winter Classic is quickly becoming hockey's equivalent of Thanksgiving Day football. On one hand, it is just a regular season game in the middle of the schedule. It means little more to the standings than any of the other 81 games a team plays each season.
But do players have trouble controlling the grins on their faces during those other contests? No. Do NFL players have trouble not getting excited about playing on Thanksgiving? Yes.
Do NHL fans get many times more psyched about the Winter Classic than they do about the other games? Yes. Do NFL players do the same on Thanksgiving? Yes.
I remember last year watching my Red Wings play at Wrigley Field and how excited I was on New Year's Eve, knowing the game was the next day. I remember how more excited I was when the Wings scored a goal than I was for any other regular season game.
The one game is in the spotlight. Playing outside is a unique experience and you have all those cameras on you. You want to play well and win when the game you are in is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and has been the talk of the town for months.
Seeing the Bruins celebrate their overtime win looked more like a playoff win than one in the middle of the season. The fans celebrated like they just won a huge game.
Professional athletes don't go crazy for a win unless it means something, and the Winter Classic clearly does.
The Winter Classic gives hockey a tradition that it did not have before. It puts the sport in the spotlight for one day to bring in fans who would not normally watch hockey. It is the sort of event that defines a sport and a holiday, much like Thanksgiving football.
Yes, it still competes with major college football, which will always trump hockey in the eyes of the general public. But the Winter Classic is competing with the likes of the Outback Bowl.
These aren't the big ones and ice hockey can take these over in several years with high profile match-ups and good PR.
The game is over before the “Grandaddy of 'em all” that everyone wants to see. People can watch the big hockey game and still catch the big football game later that day.
Looking ahead to the event's future there are several great locations for the game that will bring in a great hockey atmosphere and showcase top teams. They can bring the game back to Canada, where the first outdoor game was held in 2003.
Toronto vs. Montreal would be a fantastic match up and Toronto's BMO Field would be a great host for the event. In the more distant future I would like to see one at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich.
The Red Wings just played in the game last year but they can host it in a few years. Detroit fans would sell out the 108,000 seat stadium and set a hockey attendance record that would never be broken.
The important thing is to keep the event in a winter climate. I'm sorry, but an outdoor hockey game in Los Angeles or Florida would not make sense at all.
The one thing I would like to see change is how NBC commentators call the action. Mick Emrick and Darren Pang are usually pretty good announcers, but they just seemed to wrapped up in how cool the game was and not enough about the game itself.
Too many times they were talking about how a player, coach, or fan thought the Winter Classic was awesome for getting back to hockey's outdoor roots and they kind of forgot about the game.
Hockey can be difficult to follow for an unfamiliar fan, so having broadcasters that can describe the game instead of the atmosphere around it would help draw in casual fans.
Despite that one small flaw, the Winter Classic is becoming the event that puts regular season hockey back on the map.
It has the tradition and hype of a big game in the middle of the schedule. It gives hockey a chance to take hold of a holiday much the way Thanksgiving Day has become synonymous with football.
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