Gary Bettman always says the NHL is trying to “grow the game” of hockey, since amongst most sports fans in the United States, hockey is usually the least popular of the four main professional sports (hockey, baseball, basketball, and football). Even the MLS is now gaining on the NHL in terms of popularity. Bettman also is not allowing the NHL to participate in the Olympics, which would have given them a chance to showcase the best hockey players in the world to an international audience. Aside from the Olympics, there are plenty of other ways to grow the game of hockey here in North America.
One of the popular methods to increase interest in the NHL is the yearly Winter Classic and Stadium Series games, where teams from the NHL battle it out on an outdoor rink, usually in a professional football or baseball stadium. The St. Louis Blues just participated in the Winter Classic last season, as they defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 4-1 at Busch Stadium, a marquee event in St. Louis sports history.
So, if Gary Bettman wants to continue to grow the game and increase interest, he would put the biggest young stars in the outdoor games that are broadcasted nationally on NBC and not the same teams over and over again, right? Wrong. The NHL recently announced that in 2019, the Blackhawks will be taking on the Boston Bruins at Notre Dame Stadium. While you can market the “original six team matchup,” picking these two teams for the classic is an absolute joke. The Hawks have already participated in three Winter Classics, along with two Outdoor Series games. Keep in mind that this season’s Winter Classic is only the 10th Winter Classic ever, with the one in 2019 being the 11th.
The Bruins are not unfamiliar to the Winter Classic either, having participated in 2010 and 2016. So, keep this in mind. After the 2019 season, there will have been 11 Winter Classics in NHL history, and 10 (11 if the NHL adds a second for the 2019 season) Stadium Series Games. The Blackhawks would have played in six of the games, and the Bruins in three of them. Apart from the constant “3 cups in 6 years” proclamation from Blackhawks fans, they can now brag a similar “3 in 5” proclamation, as their Winter Classic appearance in 2019 will be their third appearance in five years.
Let’s jump to the other outdoor game announced for the 2019 season. It will be the Pittsburgh Penguins taking on the Philadelphia Flyers at Lincoln Financial Field (Philadelphia Eagles). Now, Sidney Crosby is one of the greatest players in the NHL right now, and is a surefire hall of famer. Pittsburgh and Philly are rivals. Excellent choice for the outdoor game, right? Again, wrong. These two literally just played in the Outdoor Series game LAST SEASON. It was the same matchup, but just took place at Heinz Field (Pittsburgh Steelers). The Pens have also already participated in four of the outdoor games, and Flyers also with three appearances.
My idea for the perfect Winter Classic in 2019 would be arguably the NHL’s two biggest upcoming stars, in Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, battling it outdoors with their respective teams at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton or at BMO Field in Toronto. The interest would be sky high, especially considering both players are only going to get better by 2019.
I’ve seen fans on Facebook and Twitter pitch their ideas for outdoor games as well, and there were some rather good ones. One was the battle of the Florida teams, with the Tampa Bay Lightning taking on the Florida Panthers. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov and easily marketable, and the Panthers have several young guns in Aaron Ekblad and Aleksander Barkov. Now, I’m not sure how the ice would hold up in Florida, but the NHL has pulled off two outdoor games in California in the last four years, so I’m sure it would be manageable.
Other suggestions include the Minnesota Wild and Nashville Predators. The two are divisional foes, the Wild play in the proclaimed State of Hockey, and interest is sky high in Nashville with the Preds making a run to the Stanley Cup Finals last season. The Wild have only played in one outdoor game and the Predators have yet to make an appearance in an outdoor game.
Another one I saw a lot was putting the new expansion team, the Vegas Golden Knights in an outdoor game. This makes a lot of sense to me, seeing as they’re the new team on the block and could bring in a good amount of interest. Who they play would be unclear, maybe a team such as the Arizona Coyotes or Vancouver Canucks, both of which who have never been in a Winter Classic or Outdoor Series game.
Nevertheless, the NHL continues to disappoint with their selections for the yearly outdoor games. Outside of the fans of the teams chosen, the NHL’s fans as a whole do not want to continue seeing the same teams in the Winter Classic or Outdoor Series year after year. Start throwing in teams that have never participated or have only participated once and not in a long while. Gary Bettman making decisions like skipping the Olympics while at the same time scheduling the same teams for the NHL’s outdoor games seems quite contradictory for wanting to “grow the game” of hockey, when in turn it is doing the opposite.