Who Should Be in the Next Winter Classic? A Marketable Matchup

Pat EganCorrespondent IJanuary 15, 2010

The third annual Winter Classic wrapped up 15 days ago, as the Flyers and Bruins had a 1974 Stanley Cup rematch at Fenway Park. The legendary baseball field was packed, with 38,112 fans in attendance on a day that had a reported chance of rain. The game itself drew a 2.6 television rating, which is the lowest of all three of the Winter Classics

Yet again Garry Bettman screwed up. He went with the quick cash instead of the logical choice. The game itself generated $11 million for the NHL, with sponsorship sales growing at 66 percent. But with television numbers down 10.3 percent from the previous years' matchups, you would have to imagine that next year’s matchup will draw fewer sponsors.

In the first ever Winter Classic, Bettman succeeded. He had the draw of having a title. In 2003 the Canadians and Oilers played in an outdoor game, but the NHL didn’t market it well. In reality this was the first Winter Classic.

It was the first outdoors game between two NHL teams that would count in the standings. But no one remembers that game. Instead, they remember the Penguins, sporting those awesome blue jerseys, and the Sabres battling it out in the snow. It also saw a new feature in the NHL, the shoot out. The image of Sidney Crosby beating Ryan Miller is still engraved in my memory. It was just what the NHL needed.

Bettman had built himself a title of something more than just a game. In reality, that’s all the Winter Classic is, but Bettman has convinced North America it is much more. He also was smart to have it played during the afternoon on New Year’s Day, when the only competition is bowl games that generally most don’t care about, so kudos to Mr. Bettman to that extent.

But this year I believe he failed. I live in Philadelphia, and the hype regarding the Winter Classic was huge. I’m sure it was likewise in Boston. But to the rest of America, I wonder if the hype was as big surrounding this particular matchup as years past. My guess would be no.

All this matchup had was Fenway Park. This game did not feature any recognizable stars that the NHL could use to gain momentum into the second half of the season. Now to the guy who's reading this right now and screaming at the computer, "Is this guy a moron? Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Zdeno Chara, Marc Savard? These guys are studs!" I say to that person you are 100 percent correct.

Hockey fans know who Mike Richards is, along with most of the players on both the Flyers and the Bruins. But the NHL is not trying to attract you and me. The NHL is trying to attract Joe Schmo on the street, the guy whom you could easily quiz about the first round picks in the NFL, NBA, and maybe even the MLB but wouldn't necessarily know John Tavares if the hockey center administered the quiz himself.

The NHL knows the hockey fans will watch. Hockey fans are as rabid as soccer fans, and they will watch just about any game on television. But the NHL is trying to attract the guy who is sitting at home and has nothing better to do on New Year’s Day. That’s why the NHL needs a recognizable name to the public, not just hockey fans.

Now I know what you’re thinking: "But the 2009 Winter Classic didn’t have any recognizable stars!" and once again you are correct. But I think for the 2009 Winter Classic, many tuned in because it was at Wrigley. The first Winter Classic was the first ever. It also featured Sidney Crosby, and like him or not, EVERYONE knows who Sidney Crosby is. He is a recognizable star with the potential to draw that same Joe Schmo who was given the quiz by John Tavares.

The second Winter Classic had the draw of Wrigley Field. The game had never before been done in a baseball stadium, and I think most just wanted to see what it looked like. But by the time 2010 rolled around, the average sports fan knew what a hockey game on a baseball field looked like and didn’t really know any players on either team, so they didn’t tune in.

That is why this year it pains me to say this, but the NHL needs to have the 2011 Winter Classic at Meadowlands Stadium (the new Giants stadium) between the Capitals and the New Jersey Devils. I hate both of these teams, and I in fact hate the Meadowlands, but this game would draw huge numbers.

Before the 2010 Winter Classic and after the Winter Classic, every analyst said the same thing: "Next year its gotta to be Alex Ovechkin." Even though I can’t stand the guy, I have to agree that no matter what, Alex Ovechkin needs to be in the next Winter Classic.

Ovechkin is right up there with Crosby in the sense that Joe Schmo sitting on his couch on New Year’s Day will say to himself, "I have nothing to do.....let me check out this Ovechkin guy they're always talking about." Ovechkin is a guy whom non-hockey fans know of, and he would draw those targeted by the Winter Classic.

I also can’t stand the Devils and especially Marty Brodeur, but Brodeur is right up there with Crosby and Ovechkin in recognizable stars by non-hockey fans. This is all hypothetical on my part, but if you were to ask non-hockey fans to name five hockey players, I’m sure that three of those players would be Ovechkin, Crosby, and Brodeur.

Brodeur is having one of his best seasons ever and is still at the top of his game. The NHL would be able to market this game as one of the best goalies to ever live VS. one of the best young players in the NHL. The NHL could also capitalize by holding the game in a brand new stadium.

A Devils versus Caps matchup could also introduce casual/non-hockey fans to the young stars on both teams such as Zach Parise and Alex Semin. The NHL would be using Ovechkin and Brodeur to draw them in but would "WOW" them with the playing ability of Parise and Semin. It would also be a great stage to introduce the NHL to Russian goalie Simeon Varlamov.

The NHL would have tons of marketability options they could use with this game. One easy one would be that Ovechkin and Varlamov are from Russia, so they are used to the cold weather. Maybe Brodeur grew up playing on a pod in the winter back in Canada. The plot lines this game could take would be many, but the dollars that the NHL would generate would be many more.

While I hate everything to do with this matchup, including the location, the NHL needs to announce that the 2010 Winter Classic be Ovechkin versus Brodeur, Devils versus Caps.