Winter Classic is a step in the right direction

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Getting people in the United States excited about hockey has been an extremely difficult task in recent years, but the NHL made some headway in that department on New Year's Day.

Television ratings aside, the Winter Classic was a success for the league if for no other reason than 71,217 fans turned out at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium to watch the Pittsburgh Penguins defeat the Sabres in front of the largest crowd ever to watch an NHL game.

The game itself featured a great deal of action up and down the ice, although thanks to solid goaltending, only three goals were scored in the contest. The NHL also must have been happy to see that its brightest star, Sidney Crosby, scored the game-winning goal in the shootout as Pittsburgh posted a thrilling 2-1 victory.

But, what really made the experiment a success was that, quite simply, it looked like a great deal of fun. Die-hard hockey fans in Buffalo had a great deal to do with the atmosphere, but so did the steady snowfall, which made the name "Winter Classic" seem like more than just a carefully chosen moniker to sell the game.

Not surprisingly, playing the game outdoors did create some logistical problems. For example, there were numerous stoppages to clear snow off the surface, as well as a break in the middle of each period to let Zambonis do their work. The teams also switched ends at the midpoint of the third period and the overtime session so that neither team would have more time with the wind at their back.

Sidney Crosby
Sidney Crosby acknowledges the crowd after the Winter Classic.
Those stoppages made the game about an hour longer than the average regular- season game, but the tactics used by the NHL were important because they served to protect players from injury as well as make the surface more playable.

Upon hearing the NHL's idea to stage an outdoor game on New Year's Day, I first thought it was an excellent idea mixed with a bad decision in scheduling. After all, Americans love nothing better than sitting around on New Year's Day, while they watch college football and nurse a hangover.

However, it's no secret that the bowl schedule on the first day of the year is not quite the tradition that it once was. Sure, there are a handful of solid games, but the fact that the national championship is no longer decided on New Year's has taken some of the luster away from the NCAA's holiday slate.

The NHL's attempt at creating a niche for itself on New Year's is a risk, but is a worthwhile one considering how low professional hockey has fallen in America.

As stated earlier, the TV ratings for the Winter Classic should not be the bottom line in this situation, although early numbers from the game (2.6 national) say that it was the highest-rated regular-season NHL contest in over a decade. But, it's enough that the buzz from the game has been positive whether one consults the Internet or even asks non-hockey fans who tuned in briefly just to see what the event was all about.

The fact that those who don't normally watch hockey even knew this game existed is actually a big step forward for the NHL. After all, I can't even count how many people asked me when the All-Star Game was last year after the contest had already been played.

So, this is my official endorsement to keep the Winter Classic going and make it an annual affair. Maybe the novelty will wear off after a few years, but the NHL should first try it in other cold-weather hockey hotbeds (with appropriate facilities) in either the U.S. or Canada.

It was the second game to be played outdoors in NHL history after the Heritage Classic, which saw Montreal visit Edmonton at Commonwealth Stadium on November 22, 2003. That game was also a blast to watch, and it's uncertain why the league waited four years to do it again.

The NHL should learn a lesson from this experience as to why an idea like the Winter Classic is embraced, while other recent attempts at selling the sport have fallen flat. The fact is the outdoor game puts an emphasis on nostalgia, and further underlines what tremendous passion professional hockey players have for their sport. The conditions were less than ideal for the fans and the members of the Penguins and Sabres, yet the overall presentation of the game actually benefited from the winter weather.

The league also recently announced another change that will play to the roots of the sport, as next year the NHL will return to a scheduling format that allows every team to face each other at least once during the regular season.

That means natural rivals like the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings won't have embarrassing gaps between regular-season meetings. Also, maybe a hockey fan from either coast of the United States will actually take a passing interest in quality teams and players from the opposite conferences.

The NHL needs to take a step-by-step approach in order to restore its fan base in the U.S., and the Winter Classic and the ensuing schedule changes should help in that regard.

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Dan Di Sciullo