NHL: 2011 Winter Classic Wasn't Pretty, but Proved Powerful

Tim KingCorrespondent IJanuary 4, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - JANUARY 01:  Fans watch as the Pittsburgh Penguins take on the Washington Capitals during the 2011 NHL Bridgestone Winter Classic at Heinz Field on January 1, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Washington won 3-1.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

At this rate Dan Craig could find his name on the short list of candidates for the Nobel Prize in Physics.

The NHL's ice guru kept a skate-able patch of ice together just long enough over the weekend in Pittsburgh's Heinz Field for the Penguins and Washington Capitals to play a hockey game.  Three straight days of temperatures in the 50s and an afternoon of moderate rain could not prevent this celebration. 

Never mind that the game itself was entirely forgettable and rather sloppily played.  The event is what counts and it was electric. 

The announced crowd of 69,111 sent wave after wave of energy through the parking lots around Heinz Field hours before the postponed face off and amped up the feeling once inside.  Even though this was just a regular season hockey game two games before the midpoint of the NHL season this night had a playoff atmosphere and then some. 

Scalpers had a field day in Pittsburgh getting as much as $600 for tickets in the 500 level of the stadium where the view was far better than what could be had at field level.

Think about that for a minute—a regular season NHL game ticket fetching as much on the secondary market as a face value Super Bowl ticket.  In a year when tickets to the Daytona 500, the Indianapolis 500 and the Kentucky Derby went begging for fans, the NHL could have sold this game out twice over.

The shabby ice made for a forgettable game.  The two focal points of the media blitz that lead up to this night, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, did not appear on the score sheet.  Ovechkin spent the evening unable to use his speed to create space and Crosby was so distracted that he was run over at the end of the second period by Caps winger David Steckel.  When was the last time you saw the Wizzard of Cros get blind sided on open ice?

Thanks to Saturday night, the NHL now has a marketing monster on its hands that no other sport can really match.  No other major sport can take its game back this close to its primal roots and still have a presentable package.  No other league can transform its game in this manner during the course of its season and succeed to this level.

That mother nature forced the game out of its normal afternoon time slot and into prime time made the spectacle all the more compelling.  With the skyline of Pittsburgh glistening in the background and the NHL's two most marketable teams fighting for a space of ice, er, slush the scene became more than just the game itself.

HBO, a network that could have cared less about the game until this summer, chased both teams through a month of their seasons leading up to the game and are more than pleased with the feedback that they have received from non-hockey fans through four episodes.  HBO thinks enough of the Winter Classic that it approached the league, not the other way around.  Judging from the impact, they will be back.

As good as the Winter Classic package has become, the NHL still needs to treat it with great care.   This game could easily have succumbed to the elements and still requires a host team and city willing and able to cooperate and with deep enough pockets that cutting corners is not a consideration.  Now that this game has reached these heights carpet baggers like Jerry Jones will soon come calling with piles of money in their hands.  They must be turned away.

Teams will be beating down Gary Bettman's door starting this week to convince him they can make this work in their town.  Be sure before you sign Commissioner.  Be sure.  This event has too much magic in it to be ruined by the careless.