For a couple months leading up to this year's edition of the Winter Classic I was fairly opinionated about the fact that I just wanted it to be over already. "But why? It's a huge spectacle! It's good for the game! It brings in the casual fans! Don't you get it?" Well dense, condescending twitter follower, of course I do. I understand all of that. I get why the game itself is important to the league and in the previous three versions I was all kinds of excited to watch it. It can pull in those eyes that the league wants to have experience the game (even if it is on TV) and maybe collect a bigger TV deal, some more advertising and just overall greater exposure. As someone that's already a fan of the game of hockey though I can only care so much about the league's visibility. Then add that I'm a fan of a team on the West Coast and I really don't care about a midseason matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins in Heinz Field. Mostly because the league can't make me. For a causal fan that knows only the "stars" of the league this might have been a compelling matchup. For the fans of both teams it was huge. For those that might just be fans of the individual players it's a big deal too, but for the already established fan the game this year as well as the leadup to the game couldn't have been more of a let down.
"A let down? You have to be kidding right? This whole article is a joke isn't it?" Nope. First let's talk about how the leadup to the game sucked for anyone moderately familiar with the league, or even those that are hardcore fans that just happen to be elsewhere. In the previous editions of the Classic there was some outside big selling point. The first one (heritage Classic, Vegas, etc not withstanding) was, well that first one. It was a fun new event that the league was placing on TV up against the traditional college bowl games. The spectacle was about the creation of the event and about the history between the Penguins and the Buffalo Sabres. Sure there was Sidney Crosby, but this was pre-Stanley Cup so the hype was a little less pronounced. Then the next two had both good matchups in historic major league baseball stadiums. the Detroit Red Wings playing the Chicago Blackhawks is a good matchup most of the time, but in front of the Wrigley Field ivy? All kinds of cool. Bruins and Flyers? Not a bad game most times, but in front of the Green Monster? Pretty neat. This year they didn't use history between the teams (at least not past the last few years) nor history in a venue using the 9 year old Heinz Field. It was all Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin.
Why is that a problem to me? For casual fans it might be great. They see the odd commercial, see the big stars, get excited about the game and it's great. The NHL should really focus on getting those fans, but not only running the adds on the NHL network constantly where only people that are already fans are watching them. There are days where I just leave the TV on NHLNet and watch On the Fly, NHLLive and the rest of the shows and having to have every commercial break filled with the "history" of Ovi vs. Sid gets more than a little grating to the point where you have to write posts about why you hate the Winter Classic now. That's why fans, even fairly educated ones like myself, knew zero about anything else going on with this game. One fact I didn't hear thing one about until I started writing this was that since the Capitals entered the league, they and the Penguins faced each other in the playoffs 8 times. Fans in Washington probably knew that, some in Pittsburgh probably did too. Everyone else? Not likely. All Sid-Ovi all the time. All those other story lines are what this game should have been built on. Play the previous matchups between the teams on NHLNet instead of the previous Winter Classics 14 times. Show the rest of the country why these two teams playing is important beyond just two star players.
The game itself was a whole different matter. Ratings were the highest they've ever been. Thanks to nature the game got put into prime time which ended up working out alright. Except that it was still raining and puddles on the ice were a lot of fun. I'm glad people saw hockey and enjoyed it. To me though, the cameras were badly positioned the views were just awful and the game translated to television even worse than usual. In all it doesn't much matter as the ad revenue and eyes on the product cancel it out, but if new fans are going to be drawn in don't you want them to at least have a good view and a good product? Maybe that's just me.
The league is going to have some choices to make about what to do with this game in the future. I certainly don't think they should get rid of it like some other crazy people on the internet, but the marketing needs tweaked at least. They aren't going to matchup the Penguins and Capitals every year right? Right? RIGHT?! (I hope) They've used the last two historic Baseball fields in Wrigley and Fenway and other historic venues are in locations where there's already been games or aren't usable. Without Sid-Ovi or that venue draw how will the league sell the special event to make it bigger and better? It comes down to Selling it as a team game with good rivalries and storylines. Replay the playoff matchups between whichever two teams are chosen, find ways to sell the TEAM sport, not stand on star power alone. Especailly if those stars are going to show up and both be 0-0-0 and -1 for their teams.
Let me conclude by saying this: I don't hate the Winter Classic. I hated this game and this matchup. I hated the overdone nature of advertising the star players. Then again, I wasn't the audience.