Wednesday, January 1, 2014
The Wonderful Winter Classic
The NHL's Winter Classic. With the perfect conditions, this is hockey's penultimate fan experience. Hockey played outdoors in front of large crowds with sponsors lined up to fork over millions. If you listen to the players interview before the puck drop, you hear how many of them played on backyard rinks, outdoor ponds, and even some of them from the smallest of towns played most of their organized youth hockey on outdoor rinks. Players and fans alike get to connect with their youth when they dreamed about playing on the biggest stage while on the smallest sheets of ice.
As I watched today's Winter Classic, it did immediately invoke childhood memories. I remember the first time my dad took me skating on the frozen pond in our little neighborhood. I remember after school hockey games played with childhood friends that seemed like they lasted for days. The memorable goals, the epic fake fights, and endless search for someone to play goalie when our regular was grounded. Those thoughts simmered in my imagination as I watched today's outdoor NHL game. In today's world of glitz, glamour, and excess - I can't point to another event in major North American sports that taps into the childhood of it's fans the way the Winter Classic does. The closest thing I can think of is the homerun derby played at the MLB All-Star game, and it takes a very distant second place.
While watching today's winter classic, I began to wonder how much longer it will be before the novelty of the outdoor games wears off for the players and teams participating them. You see, hockey as a competitive sport is an indoor game, much like basketball. And like basketball, when you take these indoor games played at the highest levels and move them outside, you can't always control the environment. This may sound like a cop out, but baseball and football are outdoor games. They've had a better part of a century to adapt their games to when mother nature doesn't always give us 72 degrees and sunny. In fact, their are sizable portions of both those fan bases that believe moving MLB and NFL games indoors in many ways cheapens the sports. On the other side, the casual fans of those sports (who help fill 50,000 seat stadiums regularly) likely prefer baseball and football played indoors where the climate is controlled and the participants are unabated by the elements.
But the Winter Classic is game played at the highest level, a sport that has been played indoors for the better part of 75 years. The Winter Classic is a regular season game and the wins and losses count towards the almighty race to the playoffs. The Winter Classic is not an exhibition game, but perhaps it should be. The NHL is not an outdoor sport, so drawing comparisons to football and baseball are not an apples-to-apples comparison. And I believe eventually, within 25 years, there will only be a handful of NFL teams that play outdoors. Should a game that is normally played in a much more controlled enviorment be played outside and have it's outcome count towards regular season standings?
My first gripe is the speed at which the Winter Classic game was played today. It was not an NHL-paced game today, and that lies solely with the fact that is snowed all game. A thin layer of warm water between your skate blades and hard frozen ice make you faster. A thin layer of snow and/or ice shavings between your skate blade and ice slow you the f**k down. On the flip side, the goalies seemd to struggle a bit with vision and the snow on the ice causes them fits when they go into the butterfly position. And if you watched the game, you saw the 10 little Rick Nashes out there on the snowy ice digging pucks out of their skates because the stick handling and passing was severely affected today. After the misty eyed jaunt down memory lane, it only took me about halfway through the first period before I became thankful that I didn't spend $500 to watch an AHL game played outside on the lousiest NHL ice in North America. Granted, I do wish I had gone to the game just to be there with 100,000 hockey fans. But then leaving Michigan Stadium takes hours, so I'm happy again. See, in Baseball and Football, weather is a normal part of the game. In hockey, it is not. Football has developed high tech field surfaces to help minimize the weather's effects and baseball just packs it in and rolls out the tarp when the weather gets too bad.
I really can't stand it when the novelty of pro sports gimmicks gets in the way of how a game is played. Remember when Northwestern University played in Wrigley Field? The teams could only play offense in one direction and switched directions after possessions. Today's example was Henrik Zetterberg's break-a-way with 10:00 gone in the 3rd period. He had a clear cut scoring opportunity whistled dead because it was time for the teams to change ends. Given the unstable whether conditions that always accompany the outdoor games, each team gets equal ice time at both ends of the ice to make it fair. Same in the overtime period. Same in the shootout. So at 10 minutes left to go, the whistle blows, mom yells from the back door there are 10 minutes left in the game, and the teams switch ends. The league is admitting that the conditions in which this game is played are uncontrollable, and to a degree unfair. Taking away a break-a-way from Zetterberg, or any NHLer, because you have to switch ends of the ice directly affected the outcome of that game. This wasn't a linesman blowing and offsides call, or a referee disallowing a good goal - those can happen in any game at any time. This was a stupid rule put in place because of the weather. This was not the end of a period, or game, it was a rule put in place because of the weather. The sports normally played outdoors don't have a silly rule that stops play so that the weather or field conditions effect both teams evenly. They split up playing time at both ends in a manner that makes sense. A better way the NHL can cope with this is make the Winter Classic four 15 minute periods. Still you're changing the game, but it's a better execution of coping with the weather.
One could argue that the because both teams had to play on the same ice that it was a fair contest. Well, when the Panther's play the Leafs and Wings on the outdoor ice that will be... Wait a second, not every team plays outdoors. The NHL is an indoor sport. Each rink in the NHL has unique ice. Pittsburgh has some of the worst and Edmonton has some of the best. It's one of those things that goes with 'homefield advantage.' Each team gets to play 42 games on their home ice (Winter Classic and Stadium Series notwithstanding) and that in itself is an equalizer. There are no special rules that go with playing on Pittsburgh's ice that don't exist when you play in Edmonton. And while I tease a home crowd CBJ fan base (and Dan Kamal) for pointing to one disallowed goal that makes or breaks a playoff appearance, I can't help but think the point Detroit gave up to Toronto today was directly affected by the weather. Neither team has a lousy start to over come and stupid rules and conditions that don't occur in the other 81 games they will play affected the outcome of this game.
I think the outdoor format is wonderful. I can't applaud the NHL enough for this concept and actually making it happen. But leaving a regular season game largely in the hands of weather elements that don't exist the during the other regular season/playoff games seems problematic to me, even if minute. I think the All-Star game should be played outdoors instead. It's a pick up hockey game anyways, and I think the outdoor venue would really enhance the all-star game. I love the Winter Classic idea, but I am conflicted by taking a game that is an indoor sport, playing it outside where the weather impacts the outcome of the game where it doesn't the other 99.7% of the time.
Oh, I can't imagine the #CBJ twittersphere if that was Brandon Dubinsky or Ryan Johansen on a break-a-way and the horn sounded to stop his scoring chance so that the teams could switch ends. Then in April the CBJ miss the playoffs by virtue of a tie-breaker. Even this cynic would point to a one-in-a-million instance and a rule that didn't exist in any other regular season game affecting a shot at the playoffs. Having a goal disallowed or blowing an offsides call can happen any game, and it often does. I enjoyed watch the Winter Classic with my family today, and if the Leafs had won 6-2, this blog piece probably never gets written. The NHL has found gold with the Winter Classic, but it's eating at me that the game has to have a special set of rules to accommodate the weather. And today those rules took a scoring chance away from one of the games greatest players with not much time left on the clock.