NHL milking Winter Classic for all it's worth

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - In the game of poker there is a strategy known as slow playing, where one makes a weak or passive bet on a strong hand in order to lure other players to bet. After all, if a player bets too aggressively on a strong hand it could cause others at the table to quickly fold, rather than get involved in a betting war.

Watching Gary Bettman talk about the Winter Classic, it doesn't take long to figure out that the NHL commissioner probably wouldn't use a slow playing strategy if he were to sit down at the poker table.

Bettman is clearly excited about the NHL's popular outdoor game, and he has every reason to be. The New Year's Day contest has generated a great deal of positive buzz in the United States, where, in just two years, it has become the most anticipated hockey game of the season.

But is the league running the risk of over-hyping the Winter Classic and running a good idea into the ground? On one hand, the NHL would be silly not to capitalize on the outdoor game's popularity, but then again, it's possible that too much of a good thing could be bad.

The NHL is used to being shoved into the margins in the U.S. sports pantheon, as it is forced to take a back seat to baseball, basketball and football, but hockey has become a player in America as well, if only for that one day when a pair of teams battle the elements under the open sky.

On Wednesday, the league announced the complete schedule for the upcoming 2009-10 campaign, and with that came the official announcement that the Boston Bruins will host the Philadelphia Flyers at historic Fenway Park on January 1, 2010. Bettman and league officials were on hand at Fenway, along with representatives from both the Bruins and Flyers, and they all did their best to hype a game that is over five months away.

Wednesday's festivities at Fenway made it clear that the NHL's No. 1 priority in terms of scheduling has become hyping the cash cow that is the Winter Classic. The game was a surprise hit when Pittsburgh beat the Sabres at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium in 2008, and the TV ratings for NBC's broadcast were greatly increased in last year's battle at Wrigley Field between Chicago and Detroit.

It should be mentioned that NBC also has a big stake in the marketing aspect of the Winter Classic, and the network has done an classy job of promoting the game as well as delivering it to folks watching at home. But the NHL should be careful not to follow the lead of television executives, who live in a world were today's smash hit is tomorrow's flop.

Although TV ratings in the U.S. were also up this year for the NHL playoffs, the league has determined that the Winter Classic is the best way to market the sport to the American masses. It would be difficult to argue that the NHL doesn't have a unique sporting event at its disposal in the annual outdoor game, but there is danger that the novelty may wear thin a few years down the road.

It has been suggested by many hockey pundits that the league should play the Winter Classic every other year in order to keep the game fresh. I don't feel that would be necessary at this point, but the league should consider it as an option if the popularity of the New Year's Day battle wanes in the coming years.

It's no secret that Bettman and the NHL brass desperately desire to increase the game's profile in America, as the league's success has always depended on a certain amount of support in the U.S. But when one hears rumors that the NHL has considered adding more than one outdoor game to the season (rumors that remain unsubstantiated up to this point) it makes die-hard hockey fans worry that the league is on the verge of crushing its golden egg.

One can draw a parallel between what Bettman did during the expansion era and what may happen with the Winter Classic.

The commissioner and the league loved the quick money that expanding the NHL to big cities in the U.S. brought in, but it's fairly clear now that hockey is a very tough sell in places like Atlanta, Nashville and Miami. Just because franchises in San Jose and Anaheim did well didn't make it a smart idea to try and expand the league to every major American market.

Perhaps it's just my cynical nature that causes me to see future disaster in the best marketing tool the NHL has to make inroads in the U.S. Or maybe it's because it's no secret how quickly the average American can go from enthralled to bored.

Hopefully, the NHL and Bettman figure out the right note to strike when selling the Winter Classic, or else the league may ruin the game it has come to cherish the most.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Dan Di Sciullo at ddisciullo@sportsnetwork.com.
Dan Di Sciullo