In my opinion, the Winter Classic is one of the top ten sporting events each year. Hockey… outside… snow surrounding the rink, what’s not to like? While the pre-game festivities were about 37 minutes longer than necessary, I enjoyed most of the hoopla. Bringing back legendary players, reliving the rivalry, and the whole growing up playing hockey on a frozen pond thing all contributed to a special atmosphere.
(By the way, the Winter Classic proves that sports should be played outdoors whenever possible, especially in cold weather. Football, playoff baseball, and the Winter Classic enjoy louder, more passionate crowds than basketball, indoor hockey, and summer baseball. Why? Because in most cases it’s absolute freezing outside. You can try this yourself if you’d like. Go outside and set up a chair in your backyard. Now just sit there for three hours. You’re angry and bitter cold within 45 minutes. Now do the same thing but instead of sitting there, bounce around and shout like an idiot. You’ll lose track of time. The only problem here is if your team is losing. Losing subtracts another 20 degrees from the air temperature. Almost like a wind chill, only it’s a losing chill. I digress.)
The Winter Class is the NHL’s super bowl. For at least one day a year (actually part of one day), the NHL takes center stage. (If you were watching college football instead, then I’m sorry. Not sorry for asserting the NHL takes center stage. Sorry you were watching college football.) The Flyers-Bruins game was captivating from start to finish. The play was physical, scoring chances were abundant (yes, more goals wouldn’t have hurt), and we had suspense. Top that off with the steam from players’ breath and snow flurries; and you have yourself hockey heaven. I was giddy.
Since its inception three years ago, the Winter Classic has been a success. Yes, the ratings dipped this year, but I attribute that to New Year’s Day falling on a Friday. Most people usually sit around on the 1st as they have work the next day. 2010 was different. Regardless, the NHL has its marquee exhibition and for the first time in nearly a decade, is prevalent. We can just sit back and watch the NHL take off, right? Wrong. The NHL still needs help to reclaim its place among the four major sports in the United States. Allow me to light the way.
Eliminate inter-conference play. NHL hockey (like any sport) is at its best when intensity is high and rivals face off. No one cares to see how Pittsburgh fares against Nashville or Columbus. Fans want to see Sid the Kid battle the Capitals as often as possible. Put the Devils and Flyers on display more than six times each year. The league took steps to increasing intra-conference games a few years back, now it’s time to go all the way. It will take time for the rivalries to fully develop. However, as the teams play more frequently, the animosity will grow and fans will be treated to more intriguing matchups over the course of a season. The league isn’t exactly printing money either so the travel savings would provide an added benefit.
Downsize and move some current teams to Canada. This just in; Canada likes hockey. Six franchises are not enough for a country that could sustain the entire NHL. I’m not the first to offer this solution, so I won’t pretend I’m a genius. If you were to poll 1,000 sports fans, how many of them could name the hockey teams in Atlanta, Columbus, or Nashville? Additionally, why in the world does Florida have two hockey teams? Snowmobile outfitters don’t set up shop in Arizona, nor do developers build golf courses in Minnesota. The NHL needs to embrace Abraham Lincoln’s spirit and emancipate most of the south from hockey. I’ll allow Florida one team, St. Louis to keep the Blues, the Hurricanes to stay in Carolina and maaaayyyybe give Texas a team. That’s five, possibly six teams to move north of the border. I’m in favor of downsizing as well. Although, I can’t imagine the NHL admitting they screwed up to that degree.
Change the season entirely. Currently, the NHL’s Stanley Cup competes with the NBA playoffs and Major League Baseball. Until hockey regains its early ’90’s status, this is a losing battle. Every sports nut like myself knows there is an enormous sports hole on the calendar; February to mid-March. The NHL needs to shorten its season to 60-70 games and start play in late August, putting the playoffs and finals in February and early March. Taking advantage of this gigantic lull would enable the NHL to garner more fans and, with the exception of NASCAR once a week, monopolize the sporting worlds’ interest. (Both college and professional basketball don’t heat up until mid-March and late April, respectively.)That’s not all. Scheduling the playoffs at that time would also allow the NHL to feature the Stanley Cup Finals OUTDOORS! Obviously, this would depend on the teams involved, but what a spectacle that would be. The NHL could save February for us all and return to national prominence at the same time.
Gary Bettman, I’m currently employed but I would be open to implementing these changes on your behalf. I can start immediately. No need to thank me either. For the first time in my entire life, I won’t have to sports-hibernate.