A Rink With A View

It would be hard to say that the NHL flies “below the radar.” Something that flies “below the radar” is still above ground level, and thus is occasionally seen by ordinary folks. The National Hockey League rarely achieves such lofty heights. It may be more accurate to say that the NHL glides “below the sonar”; it’s buried so deep–on air, in cyberspace, and on the printed page–that even submarines have trouble discovering it.

Hence, whenever the league wants to make a splash it is important that they follow through. The Winter Classic, played this past New Year’s Day, represents the NHL’s annual  opportunity to get some much needed attention. On paper, the Winter Classic looks like a sure thing: hockey played outdoors in winter, with snow on the ground, the threat of inclement weather, huge crowds in the stands, a match-up (usually) between long-time rivals who plain don’t like each other…The Winter Classic seems to be just what the doctor ordered for a league badly in need of an elevated profile.

Except it’s the NHL–of course they’re screwing it up. How so? Let us count the ways.

The DFR logo with hockey stick and puckFirst, for some reason, these games are always played at the crack of dawn. It’s never really the crack of dawn local time, of course, but on the west coast, a noon EST start means 9 a.m. out here. Nobody is interested in watching a hockey game that early. Not even the late, great, recently shuffled off Jean Beliveau would be interested in getting up at nine o’clock in the morning to watch hockey. And that start time is especially egregious on New Year’s Day. Hey, NHL: don’t you think that some folks may have been engaged in activities on December 31st that might, shall we say, discourage them from getting up early the next day? For some, rising at 2 p.m. might constitute a heroic effort–getting up early to watch Alex Ovechkin is probably the last thing on their minds.

That Ovechkin and his Capitals teammates featured in this year’s Winter Classic points to another problem: the match-up is rarely as sexy as most fans would like. Sure, the Blackhawks are a fine club, and undoubtedly a threat to win another Cup, but couldn’t we get anyone better than Washington out there? Yes, new coach Barry Trotz has the Capitals vaguely in contention (fourth place in the Metropolitan division as of this writing), but the Caps have a long history of choking in the playoffs; no one takes them seriously as a contender just yet.

…the Winter Classic is a made for television event, and as such it needs to have the best visuals possible…It’s a TV show, after all; make it one worth looking at.

So why were the Capitals in this year’s game? Because the game is played in big venues, usually a football or baseball stadium, and that requires a lot of planning ahead. And that’s where the NHL’s biggest failure seems to lie. Because despite all that lead time for planning and invention, the game’s presentation never lives up to hopes and expectations.

For one thing, the rink’s placement in the stadium is invariably puzzling, at best, and stupid at worst. This year’s game at Nationals Park had the ice laid almost exactly in the middle of the field. That curious decision left television viewers with plenty of shots of wide open outfield vistas behind the rink, where oddly situated walkways and ham-handed decorations vainly tried to fill the empty space.  However exciting the game might have been–won on a last minute goal, so the potential for drama was there–the dull as dishwater backdrop did a disservice to the game. Staring at a snowed over outfield does little to generate excitement and sell the viewers on your sport.

What would have been a better backdrop? How about the fans? Think about it: some of the greatest spectating in pro sports comes during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The tension and excitement are palpable, even when viewed on television. Much of that electricity comes from the fans in the stands. Just imagine that moment: a player scores a big goal, and an arena full of delirious fans jumps up and shouts in unison, pounding on the glass, perhaps even tossing their hats onto the ice–a perfect chorus for the drama playing out on the rink in front of them. That all disappears during these stadium games, where the fans are placed so far away from the action.

Or, rather, where the rink is placed so far away from the fans. The simplest, most straightforward cure for what ails the Winter Classic is simply this: place the rink into the venue so that the ice surface sits close to the stands, close enough for the crowd to influence the game. Place the TV cameras on the “empty” side of the rink to get those great crowd shots, and suddenly these games will take on much more life.

Now, nestling the ice in close to some of the seats will inevitably move the rink away from many other seats. Fine–don’t sell those seats. The NHL is often too tied to ticket sales for its own good. That’s understandable, given that its network television contract is relatively small, and that a large percentage of league revenue still comes from ticket sales. But the league needs to take the broader view: the Winter Classic is a made for television event, and as such it needs to have the best visuals possible. Bringing the fans back into the picture–literally–is necessary to make this game all it could be.

Indeed, the league should think much further outside the box–box seats, that is–and play the game in non-traditional venues. Imagine a Winter Classic played in Times Square: set up temporary grandstands around a rink nestled in among the concrete canyons. How’s that for some TV visuals?

Or do the same thing in Central Park, with the Manhattan skyline rising up behind the crowd. Even better: set up a rink in Aspen or Vail or some other famous ski resort. Imagine an NHL game played with snow-capped peaks in the background of every camera angle. It works for the Winter Olympics, at least for the skiing competitions; why wouldn’t the Winter Classic benefit from the same spectacular scenery?

It’s a TV show, after all; make it one worth looking at. The NHL cannot just rely on slap shots; it needs a real shot in the arm if it’s going to compete in today’s spectator sports landscape. Putting some real landscape into the picture–playing in a rink with a view, so to speak–would be the best way for the league to get a real boost from its once a year showcase.

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