The below-zero wind chill was classic. The ending, a shootout, was classic. The turnout of 105,491 spectators, wrapped around a makeshift pond in an iconic football stadium, was classic. The convergence of Detroit and Toronto, cities that treat the sport like a heavy-metal religious experience, was classic.
But let’s stop the hype machine for a moment and be real about what we saw on New Year’s Day at Michigan Stadium, also known as the Big House: The Winter Classic was not a classic game. In fact, if you enjoy what is wonderful about hockey, it was pretty close to unwatchable. A relentless snowfall turned the ice into someone’s Midwestern driveway, making it almost impossible to make simple passes because of accumulating white piles. It was difficult to skate, create scoring chances, see the puck or do anything except try to survive the afternoon without frostbite.
Sure, the conditions were fun to watch for a while, which is the very novelty of staging NHL games in legendary outdoor venues. But in the end, a game is still an athletic competition, not a made-for-TV spectacle with a Weather Channel meteorologist barking out updates. And when it turns out weather may have directly altered the outcome — Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg had a breakaway in overtime when play suddenly was stopped midway through the five-minute period, with teams switching sides so because of brisk winds — well, the winner and loser didn’t seem to matter much.
What mattered was how the NHL could use the Winter Classic, as it has since the inaugural game in 2008, to mass-market its product. But isn’t something disproportionate about turning a cute idea — playing hockey outdoors, as some people do as kids — into the league’s version of a Super Bowl? It would be akin to David Stern dispatching the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder to Barcelona, putting 150,000 spectators around a basketball court in an outdoor soccer stadium and calling it the NBA’s hallmark event, even as Kevin Durant’s jumpshots and Dwyane Wade’s alley oops to LeBron James were blown awry by wind. And then, doing the same thing a year later with two more teams in another city.
Except Gary Bettman, the NHL’s ever-embattled commissioner, hasn’t stopped at one Winter Classic this year. He has five more.
Five friggin’ more.
One in Chicago, which already has hosted a Winter Classic at Wrigley Field and now will do so at Soldier Field. Two in New York, which has plenty of tickets remaining for Rangers-Islanders at Yankee Stadium. One in Vancouver. And the other at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, where available seats are plentiful for a Kings-Ducks game that really should be staged in the sand on Manhattan Beach, where the hockey players live and the southern California hockey culture is based. That was my fantasy when the NHL started these showcases: Do them in unique settings, not just inside football and baseball stadiums. You know: Red Rocks Amphitheater outside Denver, the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, President Obama’s backyard in Washington, the Grand Ole Opry house in Nashville.
Of course, silly me. Those are pipedreams, places that could accommodate only a handful of fans when, as you know, having six Winter Classics is all about greed and selling tens of thousands of tickets. With one game a year, the NHL would have a good chance of preserving the novelty and building a tradition for decades.
Six? Bettman will burn us out, eventually run out of special venues and ruin a cool concept.
Not that he knows or cares. “This has been a terrific day, terrific way to start the new year and a terrific way to embark upon the part of the season that’s going to see five more outdoor games at the Olympic break,” he said. “We couldn’t be any more pleased with the way things went.”
The upcoming Sochi Games play into his hucksterism, with the league suspending its schedule to accommodate what always is a memorable Olympic tournament. After Team USA’s brilliant silver-medal run in Vancouver four years ago, Bettman and NBC officials are working in tandem to ramp up the buzz.
That said, a hockey game is still a hockey game. And this was something better off played on a floor of marbles.
“The conditions made it so some of the skill in the game was eliminated,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said.
“I don’t know if you would call it a gem from a pace standpoint,” Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. “There was a lot of snow and a lot of things to deal with.”
Toronto survived the shootout and won 3-2.
Oh, someone won?