My thoughts on the Winter Classic

Okay, now that my Guardian piece is up and the ensuing circus has subsided a bit, I have some time to reflect on the Winter Classic.

I loved it. I loved every single minute of it. It was a great event — and it was a really good hockey game. With a little help from some friends (you know who you are; I’ll be over to mow the lawn tomorrow!) we were able to get Laurie a ticket to the game, and she flew in on the 31st and home today — and she had a great time also.

Watching the show on NBC with an eye to how it would be received by non-fans, and whether those non-fans might find hockey interesting and checkin again later. After all, this isn’t JUST an outside game aimed at the existing fan base, this event is An Event, clearly aimed at showing off hockey to non-hockey fans and hopefully convincing them to check in again later.

I thought it succeeded at that — but a lot of the credit has to go to watching hockey on HD. Back in 2003 I interviewed Sharks President Greg Jamison and one of the things he felt strongly about was that HD was needed for hockey to really become a “TV sport”; heck, even back when Laurie and I worked with the Spiders, a lot of the talk in the stands during games among the staff was making hockey more TV friendly, and even back then, HD was seen as a real key to making this all happen.

(digression: the reality is — on normal TV, hockey is an abysmal sport for non-fans; fans know how to interpret the action; for the non-fan, it’s chaos. It’s no wonder hockey has always struggled on TV, and no marketing or network can solve a technical problem like not being able to see the object all of the players are fighting over. the NHL knew this, and as much as anything, focussed on being ready to push forward once HD mainstreamed. Which is finally has, and now the NHL is doing things like the Winter classic).

On HD, the winter classic looked awesome; the puck was easily visible and the player movement well managed on screen. I don’t know if they were using CBC cameramen for the NBC feed, but the angles and the way they followed the action were stellar, and I felt that the sport showed itself off very well to someone who wasn’t sure what they were going to be seeing. That we had a damn good hockey game didn’t hurt, either.

Bringing Costas in to do some of the announcing was a good touch; maybe not something some fans liked — but he did a fine job of humanizing the game and helping to put it into a context non-fans could appreciate. That’s the sort of thing the NHL needs to do here: explain and showcase, don’t just cater to the choir, and I thought that was well done, but not in the cloying way that NBC does the Olympics, which I find difficult to watch (fortunately, we also have Canadian TV here, so we’ve always switched over to CBC. But I digress).

It was too bad Mike Emrick couldn’t make the call — but Dave Strader filled admirably.

I loved the site placement and design aspects they threw in; the place absolutely sparkled on TV, and the plane and copter shots really set the stadium off. Making sure the entire field was covered with snow was a genius move, it made Wrigley look like a diamond in the city. The faux-brick on the boards was awesome. The printed fake-ivy and fake-brick (with ads) worked for me, too, at least in part because it was there, but kept carefully in the background, like it should be.

Frank Pellico on the organ. Tony Esposito and Stan Makita. I could go on and on. Pretty much everything worked; I teared up listening to the organ during the star spangled banner — seriously.

I was just blown away. A+, dear NHL, and thanks. In two years, you’ve turned this into a real event, the kind of event that over time can really draw people into taking a closer look at the NHL. Now, the trick will be to sustain this without making it boring or screwing it up. So far, I see every indication they can…

Negatives and nits:

I thought the flash card sequences in the stands was a neat, somewhat retro hack and worked well. Laurie noted that it wasn’t a good idea to ask a bunch of Blackhawk fans to hold up cards to make a Red Wing logo, and where she was, as soon as people realized what the image was, cards started going airborne in a serious way and much rude commentary ensued.

the only thing I didn’t think worked was the singing in the third period. Nice try, but it just didn’t work. Laurie noted that in the stands, they couldn’t hear what was being sung, as soon as the singing started, everyone went off and sang the regular lyrics. But on TV, I thought it was a nice try, but missed. I would have much rather they used a hockey song like Stompin’ Tom or the Zamboni song rather than weakly rewording take me out to the ball game. But — points for trying, and if that’s the worst I can come up with, nobody at the NHL offices should lose much sleep.

What’s next?

Lots of people are saying the next logical place to go is Fenway. I agree — but not next year. Here’s my worry. If you do two of these in successive years, Wrigley and Fenway, THEN WHAT? that’s setting a standard that once you get past those two stadiums will be really hard to sustain, much less top.

So my suggestion is to wait on Fenway. At some point down the road, Winter Classic may need a bit of a boost, once it settles into the habits of happening every year and people stop seeing it as new and special. I’d pencil in Fenway for the fifth anniversary event of Winter Classic — that’s something you could really market around.

Instead, I’d really like to see the NHL take this back to Canada next year, and use a Canadian venue every third year or so. Montreal in McGill stadium is an obvious one. My preference, though, would be —

It would be Winnipeg, in Blue Bomber Stadium. A game between the Coyotes and the Avalanche. That would create interesting stories on both sides of the border, and I think it’d be a hoot. Maybe I could scam a ticket to it for myself.

So year 3 in Winnipeg, year four in New york (new yankee stadium), year five in Boston (Fenway), year six in Montreal, and year 7 in Pennsylvania between Philly and the penguins.

wouldn’t it be fun to put ice back in Maple Leaf Gardens, just for one game? C’mon, NHL, think about it. And consider Camden yards in Baltimore. But thinking out more than a few years, so much can change, let’s just get through the next few years (Winnipeg, New York, Boston, Montreal) and then we’ll see. Honestly, that’s one hell of a lineup of venues, no?

I do think the NHL has a winner here, and not only that, a winner that they can build on and grow for a number of years before worrying about it getting stale.

Awesome event. Way to go, NHL! congrats.