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About a week has gone by now, and I tried to let this pass, but, like a loose tooth, I just can’t leave it alone: the NHL is continuing to screw up the outdoor games.

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The Winter Classic in St. Louis: Too-wide open spaces

As previously noted, there are three major problems with the Winter Classic and its sibling (Heritage Classic and Stadium Series) games. And, despite my and others’ best efforts, the NHL is not getting the message about this. Let’s try again.

First and foremost, there’s just way too much space between the rink and the fans in the stands for these games. All the intimacy that makes a hockey game so great is lost with these rinks placed directly in the middle of the stadium’s floor. Yes, Busch Stadium looked OK with the whole Blues guitar motif thing they had going there, but the NHL’s goal with these games should not be to guarantee employment for the props department nor the local set designers. It should be to bring the NHL viewing experience to curious onlookers who are tuning in–perhaps for the first time–only to get a look at an indoor game being played outdoors. And, as the setup is currently constituted, those potential new fans are not seeing the game as it usually and truly is.

The prescription remains the same: place the rink tighter to the main grandstand, install some temporary stands on the other side of the rink, and leave the wide open winter spaces to the movies. If you want expansive snowy vistas, check out The Hateful Eight or The Revenant; let’s get in close to the boards for the hockey game.

The second problem–again, as mentioned in this space before–is the general lack of creativity in where these outdoor games are being played. While I concede that it’s not bad to have the home fans on hand for the game, I don’t agree that that means the games have to be staged in the local stadium. Just about any city in the league has a public space that’s familiar, accessible, big enough to handle a rink and some crowds, and–and this is the main idea–telegenic.

These games are, after all, TV shows. There’s nothing fundamentally necessary about playing outdoors that applies to NHL games; if there were, you would want the playoffs played outdoors all the time, right? These games exist outdoors to put on a show. We want eyeballs on these games, and a boldly interesting venue would only help that. I return to my previous suggestion: how about some winter sports paradise in Colorado or the Sierra Nevada or the Canadian Rockies? There are old Olympic venues out there which could stage a game in the great outdoors, with room for crowds and snow-capped peaks in the background–and little threat of calling the game because of rain in the forecast.

Lastly, I braved the wretchedness that is today’s Yahoo! Sports–bitch within a bitch: their redesigned website is truly awful–to find myself agreeing with Puck Daddy’s Greg Wyshynski that there needs to be more teams picked to play in the Winter Classic than the Blackhawks and whomever is free (or less hung over) that New Year’s Day. Getting the Blues in the action is a good step, but the whole thing starts to look pretty weak when, at the same moment, the Columbus Blue Jackets were in the midst of an historic streak, the Minnesota Wild were on their own winning jag, and Connor McDavid is resurrecting the Edmonton Oilers with his skillful, lightning-fast game. Do we really need to see Chicago again, all things considered?

Granted, no one saw the success of the Blue Jackets coming when the schedule was put together, but McDavid was the number one overall pick and considered a sure thing. Isn’t that the kind of player you want to showcase in your, you know, showcase game? Especially considering the dazzling skill the kid brings to the rink?

It’s unlikely that anything will change with the outdoor games. The league and NBC are satisfied with what they’re getting from them as is. They’re making baby steps forward. But I’d rather see them make bold strides forward and take the chance on making a big advancement for the sport, rather than just making safe–and ultimately unsatisfying–choices.


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