It’s been nearly a year since they played outdoor hockey at Fenway Park. That’s right, nearly a year. The Bruins’ overtime win in the Winter Classic was held on Jan. 1, 2010, but don’t forget about the college hockey doubleheader a week later, won by New Hampshire’s women and Boston University’s men.
It was an unforgettable fortnight of hockey on Yawkey Way, with prep school, men’s league and pickup games held nearly around the clock between the NHL and college classics.
Last week’s prime-time Winter Classic, moved to an 8 p.m. start because of steady rain, drew an even bigger audience than the picture-perfect afternoon at Fenway last year. The event continues to grow and is now the league’s biggest event outside of the Stanley Cup Finals.
It’s gotten so big, in fact, that the NHL will hold another outdoor game next month. The Heritage Classic will pit the Flames and Canadiens against one another in Calgary on Feb. 20. There’s nothing wrong with having another outdoor game — it certainly won’t diminish the storybook image we have of skaters playing the game in the sun, snow and rain — but don’t expect the Heritage Classic to have the same effect on hockey as the New Year’s Day event.
Simply put, the Jan. 1 game is making hockey a legitimate big league sport in the United States. On a day when most people are taking down Christmas lights, nursing hangovers and watching college football, a steadily growing percentage of our population is choosing to watch hockey.
NBC’s ratings for the game are significant. There were 4.5 million people watching the game Saturday night, making it the most-watched regular-season NHL game in 35 years. That’s a pretty good score for a network that doesn’t have to pay a penny in rights fees to televise the league’s games.
Last I checked, hockey’s doing just fine in Canada. The Heritage Classic will be a lot of fun, but it won’t be looked upon to save the sport’s image in the eyes of an indifferent viewing public.
Which brings us to next year. Where does the Winter Classic go on New Year’s Day 2012? Fenway Park was a terrific host, and Boston would undoubtedly welcome the event back with open arms. New York City hasn’t had one yet, but the new Yankee Stadium is tied up with a bowl game for the next few years, and the old stadium is gone. Not sure Citi Field qualifies as an “iconic” stadium worthy of the event.
You could hold it in the Meadowlands, but hosting a classic across the parking lot from an arena that lost the sport after years of poor attendance seems wrong.
Perhaps the NHL could bring the game to neutral sites, bring the sport’s most visually appealing event to a spot without a team. Lambeau Field could host a game — it’s certainly cold enough in Green Bay. Or build a temporary stadium at the speed-skating oval in Lake Placid, N.Y., in the shadows of the arena known for hockey miracles.
Pulling the Winter Classic out of NHL cities might be the perfect way to keep the event growing. Put it in a ski city — Park City, Utah, or Jackson Hole, Wyo. For that matter, take it overseas. Last year, New England Sports Ventures showed everyone how to stage a two-week hockey party. I’m sure that group could make it work at Anfield if it can get Liverpool to hit the road for a couple of games. (The locals won’t mind. The way the Reds have been playing, they’d probably be happy for a sporting distraction.)
Regardless of where it goes, the Winter Classic has become the most important hockey event in the United States. Fans and non-fans alike are tuning into the event. After all, if you can make hockey look good on a rainy night in Pittsburgh, you can make it look good anywhere.