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NHL Stadium Series: falling in love with hockey for the first time

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For many, outdoor hockey is a way of life. But for more and more people across America, it's an all new way to fall in love with the sport.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

There are no frozen ponds in Phoenix.

I spent my entire life in the Valley of the Sun. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've walked across a frozen pond, never mind skated on top of one. There are likely hundreds of thousands of young people like me in places like San Jose and Los Angeles that have similar stories to mine.

Yet this evening, 69,000 people will gather at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara to watch some of the sport's best play under the night sky. They will feel the crisp air, hear the cheers of the crowd rise to the heavens, and see the game they love in a way they've never seen before.

As the Stadium Series enters its third year of existence in the 2015-16 season, lingering questions about how much is too much will permeate the national media conversation. Middling TV ratings for this season's Winter Classic lend credence to the notion that the brand the NHL desires is being watered down with too many outdoor games.

But really, the Stadium Series has never been about the national image of the NHL. The Winter Classic is the sport's marquee attraction, in a prime place on the calendar with special significance. The Stadium Series games cater to the local and regional fans.

Which is actually extremely important to the NHL's quest of solidifying its footprint. Fans in Southern California and Arizona have to be catered to in a way that's different than fans in upstate New York or Minnesota. For many kids in Northern America, hockey isn't an event so much as a touchstone; a harkening back to afternoons spent out on the lake in the backyard after school.

Fans in warm weather climates are not just learning the game, they are learning to love the game. As indoor ice rinks proliferate in America's major metropolitan areas, the game becomes accessible to more and more people. Now the trick is to make them fall in love with it.

So long as the Stadium Series takes the game to places it has never been outside before, it will accomplish just that.