Fans may be lapping up the outdoor games despite unpleasant weather, but some voices guard against an overdose, writes Paul Oberjuerge.
Novelty of outdoor ice hockey Stadium Series risks wearing thin in NHL
The great leap forward seemed unnecessary and perhaps risky, not unlike the NHL’s radical expansion from six teams to 12 for the 1967/68 season, a move that led to several rocky seasons before the new clubs were able to compete with the Original Six.
This season, the league decided to triple the number of open-air games, from two to six.
The four new games were dubbed the Stadium Series, and it was fair to wonder if they would enjoy the smashing success of the league’s two established outdoor games, the Winter Classic and Heritage Classic.
The results are in. Turns out, six open-air games are not too much of a good thing.
The Stadium Series concluded Saturday night with a capacity crowd of 62,921 at Chicago’s Soldier Field. Bundled in layers of clothes to combat temperatures of minus-8°C, fans saw the Chicago Blackhawks defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-1 in a snowstorm. Several times, play was halted as snow was removed from the playing surface.
“Every time there was shovels on the ice, you sat back and looked around and kind of marvelled at the people and how amazing the setting was,” said Kris Versteeg, the Chicago wing.
Jonathan Toews, the Blackhawks captain, who scored two goals, said the game felt like something out of his childhood, played in his backyard.
The Stadium Series games produced four sell-outs and drew more than 210,000 fans into stadiums in Los Angeles, New York (twice) and Chicago. They also attracted much-higher-than-usual television viewership, with audiences in excess of three million.
Luc Robitaille, a Los Angeles Kings executive and former player, conceded he worried about dilution of the outdoor concept.
“I thought maybe that would be the case,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “I understood why people said that. You don’t want the games to become boring to the fans. But we had 50,000 fans at Dodger Stadium watching a hockey game, and it was LA’s version of outdoor hockey – and that’s when I realized every market can make this their own big event.”
Three of the four games were played in unpleasant weather, but freezing temperatures seemed to make the experiences more memorable, not less.
Players contended with snow-covered ice in Chicago and New York, and a slushy surface in Los Angeles, but they found it hard to complain about conditions on the rink because of the electric atmosphere at the venues.
It seems fair to suggest that fan interest would fade if too many outdoor games are added. But it also true that even with six games this season, the NHL has yet to take an outdoor game to most of its 30 markets, including cold-weather locations such as Denver, Minneapolis and Calgary.
Players of the week
• Johan Franzen, Detroit Red Wings The Swede began the week with a silver medal at Sochi and scored three goals with two assists in the NHL.
• Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals The centre has a goal and five assists in his past three games.
• Darcy Kuemper, Minnesota Wild The back-up deputised in two starts and shined, winning twice while stopping 51 of 52 shots.
Teams of the week
• LA Kings Scored 11 goals in three victories, taking their winning streak to four and fortifying their play-off chances.
• Buffalo Sabres The league’s worst team came back from the Olympics and reeled off three victories, including wins over Boston and San Jose.
Duds of the week
• David Backes, St Louis Blues The captain contributed no points in two losses and has failed to score or assist in four successive games.
• Pittsburgh Penguins The East leaders looked lost as they resumed play, losing twice, including a 5-1 rout in the snow at Soldier Field.
Games of the week
• Montreal Canadiens at Anaheim Ducks, Wednesday The league’s most successful club all-time (23 championships) visits the most successful so far this season.
• Calgary Flames at Vancouver Canucks, Saturday When they last met, on January 18, each side started their goon squads and they brawled two seconds after the puck was dropped. A total of 142 minutes of penalties were assessed.
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