The NHL has invested a huge amount of resources in making the Winter Classic one of its marquee events, something anticipated by people who couldn't tell the Stanley Cup from a tin one, and using the accompanying outdoor games as the ideal promotion of the sport to the casual fan.
Unfortunately, if reports released Wednesday night are true, they've only succeeded in continuing to make those games a punchline.
The uber-reliable Bob McKenzie was the first with the news that the NHL has apparently decided on two more outdoor games for next season, hosted by the Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche.
As for the opponents, well, prepare your surprised face.
MIN's opponent expected to be CHI; COL's opponent expected to be DET. BOS, of course, will host MTL on Jan. 1 in Winter Classic in Foxboro.— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) January 22, 2015
What a phenomenal way to continue the devolution from events that are great for the casual sports fan to games they simply don't care about.
The Blackhawks and Red Wings have been in the last two Winter Classics, respectively, and this will be the fourth appearance in an outdoor game for the Hawks and third for the Wings. Hell, we might as well build them practice rinks outside since the league seems to want them in an outdoor game every other year. Boston is also making its second appearance.
[Ed. note: Reports have surfaced this morning that the league actually didn't want Chicago in the game, that the Wild requested them as an opponent over the Stars. While that does shift some of the blame from the league, it only makes the NHL look spineless and stupid rather than just dumb.
The NHL should be concerned with things that are best for the league, not the wants of an individual team. When a team requests something that is relatively inconsequential to the other clubs - playing at home on a certain day every year, for instance - that's one thing. When a team is asking the league to make a bad business decision that hurts the NHL's credibility, perception of objectivity and business potential, they need to step up and tell them no. ]
Two things made the initial Winter Classic the best of all the events so far - the novelty and the genuineness of the event. You can tell it wasn't conceived by a marketing person because it took place in Buffalo, which, no disrespect intended, is not where any marketing person would ever suggest.
That's exactly what made it great. It wasn't about pleasing a carefully chosen test audience, at least on the surface. It was just about hockey, and it showed hockey at its best. That was more than enough.
For some reason, the league seems to have forgotten that lesson in the years since.
Simply put, the NHL doesn't seem to have enough confidence in its sports own appeal. Outdoor games, beyond the sponsorship bazaar that they've turned in to, are designed to reach the casual fan, to market to people who won't turn into a Thursday Tampa Bay-Winnipeg game but might be looking for something their coworkers will talk about the next day. Then, if those people identify with the sport via that hook, they may grow into more devoted fans.
The league seems to get that. What they don't seem to understand that to be taken seriously by the casual sports fan, the greater public needs to perceive your league as having nationwide impact, of having the potential to represent them. And those novel events have to be just that - new and not simply a retread.
After all, people latch on to sports and teams because they feel they are somehow represented by the men and women who put on the uniforms. We pick our teams because they represent us in some way, whether that's because our mother was a fan or we lived in that city or a friend took us once and we were hooked.
But not every team works for every person, even if the sport itself might be appealing.
Because of this, by limiting the selections for marquee events to the same half-dozen teams with occasional guest appearances by others, you guarantee that those key sources of new revenue will never be interested in your league because they have already decided against giving their allegiance to the only things they've been pitched.
They are no longer intrigued by these teams. Instead, they are becoming bored by them.
They've seen the Hawks and Penguins and Capitals and their stars. They know what they're getting, and while it may have been fun for a moment, it is no longer a novelty deserving of their attention or water-cooler chatter. Yes, these teams unquestionably have some of the league's best talents, but the cult of personality only works as a sales model if your brand is already well established as interesting.
This year's Winter Classic was the lowest rated in history despite a beautiful venue and marquee teams because the casual fan is bored of the status quo. You can't simply give them the same product repackaged every year and call it a new gift.
And we're at a point in an economic cycle where the NHL needs to grow its fanbase into that casual segment more than ever.
The Canadian dollar, which has been strong as the league reached record revenues, is tumbling. One big reason is oil prices have plummeted, which is great for our wallets but less so for the economies of oil-fueled boom-towns like Edmonton and Calgary.
If the NHL doesn't find new parts of the fanbase to tap, it may very well see its revenues (and salary cap) drop in the near future. Growing the sport in areas not currently on NBCSN's nightly rotation is as important now as it's ever been.
So what's the solution? The league needs to make these high-end events less an exercise in celebrating the chosen few and more about what made the first Winter Classic a success - finding the heart of the sport and using the unique venue to showcase it.
For the initial Winter Classic, that was the flashback to the simplicity of playing outside as a child, before the league was building replicas of government buildings in the outfield to make this the Newest and Shiniest marketing bonanza. The teams were new to the general public, and, even if there wasn't a history of fierce rivalry in the recent past, the atmosphere made it magic.
That atmosphere isn't new anymore, which is why the league is looking for other ways to make people care about. But they're going about it in an incredibly idiotic way. Even the NFL, which can't figure out how to deal with problems on and off the field, and the NCAA, as corrupt an institution as they come, wouldn't be this willfully ignorant of good business practice.
What makes for great hockey games? One thing is a grudge or a rivalry. Shared history, perhaps. Something that legitimately goes beyond the surface of the game and brings in the passion you usually only pick up in long playoff series.
But as we've established, you can't do that in a way that's boring or repetitive because you lose your audience before you have the chance to show off the product. You need some other natural rival for the Wild and Avalanche (heck, if we're being complete, the Wings-Avs rivalry is pretty well in the past at this point, even for the fans).
To start, the Wild and Avs obviously hate each other after the playoff series last year and relative geographic proximity. Still, the NHL loves to run a good thing into the ground until the public doesn't care anymore (remember six outdoor games last year?), so they've decided they want them both to host in the same year.
With that decision, Colorado is a little tricky. The playoff appearance last year was their first in several years with the series loss back in 2009-10 coming to the Sharks. There's also old bad blood, for better or worse, with the Vancouver Canucks. Last season, there was talk of a rivalry with St. Louis, and that could be a very fun game with the Avs' high-flying speed versus the skill and defensive steadiness of the Blues.
It's not so hard for the Wild. While the teams have never faced off in the playoffs, there's still a scar left from when the North Stars moved to Dallas following arena, attendance and other concerns in the early 1990s. And like the proposed Avalanche-Blues game, it would be high-flying speed and young marquee talent versus the state of hockey and its defensive stalwart game (when the Wild's goaltending is working, at least).
Those are natural games to promote, ones that include talent the casual fan recognizes (T.J. Oshie is probably as recognizable a name as any for his heroics in Sochi) and rivalries, different styles of play and new teams to appeal to a person who hasn't found a fan connection with the Hawks or Wings or Penguins. They also have natural appeal in the host city, especially a potential Minnesota-Dallas game.
Instead, the NHL is reportedly going back to the same well that is already running dry in the eye of the casual fan the whole event is designed to reach. By relying on the same teams over and over, they only make the league less interesting to those people, not more.
Hockey is a beautiful sport that sells itself to new fans when presented with real rivalries in a new light. Sadly, the league doesn't trust the sport enough to let the game sell itself.