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25/01/2014 / Hackett

Outdoor Hockey is for Everyone, Too

This weekend marks the beginning of the National Hockey League’s Stadium Series, a group of four games to be held outdoors at historic stadiums in the country’s largest sports markets: Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium, New York’s Yankee Stadium, and Soldier Field in Chicago. For now, let’s skip the “how the hell are they going to play hockey outdoors in Los Angeles” crap because look, they have had games outside in Las Vegas, which is in the middle of the goddamn desert, so it’ll work, and that’s not the issue here. The issue here is this:

I get that the annual Winter Classic and Heritage Classic games are something special, but that’s also exactly the point. Whenever I see someone saying they should stop diluting the product, it’s almost always someone whose team has participated in one. This time, it’s a “journalist” that covers one of those teams. I have been fortunate enough to have attended not only the Winter Classic at Wrigley Field, but also the Hockey City Classic, a college hockey showcase held last February at Chicago’s historic Soldier Field. I grew up in Wisconsin, and while I was part of many house and travel leagues in my youth, playing hockey outdoors on lakes, ponds, and makeshift ice surfaces was a significant part of my development. Seeing my favorite team take on their biggest rival outside, in the elements, on a national stage, with my father who helped and coached me every step of the way was an experience that will live with me forever. Why should we not expose this incredible opportunity to as many people as possible?

LOOK AT THAT. The above picture is from this year’s Winter Classic, held at legendary Michigan Stadium. It looks like the greatest snow globe ever. Look at the perfectly contrasted red and blue team colors. My mind is immediately flooded with memories of the classic bubble hockey game, which we’ve all played in the vestibule of a local peewee hockey rink, or at a crappy dive bar that’s too cheap (or awesome) to replace it with Golden Tee. We want to limit this type of atmosphere for what reason, again?

Granted, it will most likely not be snowing in Dodger Stadium, and many local youths may not have grown up lacing up their skates with fingers numb from the elements and dodging massive ruts to retrieve pucks from eight-foot snowbanks, but they know of the legacy of the game, or at least they should. This is an opportunity to teach them where the game was born, and how it has grown to the point where they can play even in a place where ponds and lakes don’t freeze over, at least not without a lot of engineering by the NHL’s hockey operations department.

I apologize for bringing the sputtering of a ham-fisted clod like Joe Haggerty to your attention, but his exclusionary attitude towards the expansion of outdoor hockey is just too idiotic to ignore. His assertion that the league is damaging the appeal of the Winter Classic is not only sublimely smug and narrow-minded, it’s downright incorrect. If your product has a limited audience, withholding that product from them and denying access to a wider audience is absolutely the opposite way to grow your fan base. Look no further than Chicago Blackhawks fans that couldn’t even watch home games on local television until 2007, and are now setting not only local TV ratings records, but attendance records as well.

I know that these games are, in part, a cash grab for the league, especially with the ridiculous, chromed-out jerseys they’ve designed, but shut out the cynical voice inside you for just a minute and allow yourself to see what these games can be for those who haven’t experienced them yet: a re-connection to hockey at its roots. Try and enjoy the game for once instead of looking at what it might do to Winter Classic viewership, because that kid seeing outdoor hockey for the first time won’t let a dip in television ratings prevent him or her from falling in love with the greatest game on earth.

-hackett

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