This complaint rains down on social media every time the NHL pushes another outdoor game. “There are too many!” “They watered it down!” “The Blackhawks again?!” Okay, that last one is true. The point still stands though; the NHL struck gold with these outdoor games. While the format is the same – two teams take it outdoors – the uniqueness of the city and the teams storylines breathes new life into each and every game. After sitting in the midst of the fans for half a dozen outdoor games, I can promise all the naysayers that you are wrong about the specialness of these games wearing off.
First, lets address the naysayers. Hockey fans are an interesting bunch. I say this as a lifelong fan. The only groups of people I hear complaining about these games are hockey fans. That isn’t to say that some non-hockey fans think it is stupid or overdone (although I have yet to personally hear that). The majority of people who are just general sports fans often ask me, “why doesn’t the NHL do more of these?” But, I get where hockey fans are coming from.
Hockey is a unique sport in America. It hardly ever sees the top spot in media attention. While we may hate this, it is also a part of the identity of what it means to be a hockey fan in the US. You actively chose to be a fan. It is kind of like Philly fans – if we aren’t being called assholes, then who are we?! Seeing the NHL push the sport to reach a mainstream audience in way feels like an identity crisis. Don’t worry guys – after the three outdoor games a year, most people go back to forgetting about hockey.
Another issue is how the NHL pushes certain markets (read: if they could get the Blackhawks to play the Blackhawks, every game would be that). No one likes favoritism, and it is especially annoying to fans. We get it; they have to make it work for advertisers. At a certain level, it does feel like the NHL is ruining the fun for their fans because they can’t find a way to make their product more marketable to a larger audience.
Hockey fans value tradition and humility. These outdoor games in a way reflect the exact opposite of these values. A new tradition is being forced upon us (well, aside from the fact that hockey at its roots is played outdoors. But that is not how the NHL is played). The games are played on a big scale and hyped up to an NFL level. It is a direct contrast of what we value as fans of the sport.
Hockey fans, I hear you. However, is it really that bad? Think about it. There are 2,460 NHL games each regular season. Three of them are played as a part of the Winter Classic or the Stadium Series. That is 0.001 percent that are played outdoors each season. In those very small percentage of games, hockey is for a moment shining in the spotlight. And, in the outdoors, it really shines. Stop stressing about 0.001 percent.
This most recent game in Pittsburgh really solidified how special these games are for me. I thought that maybe a second game with the same team and same venue would feel wrong. This was completely different though. The weather was different, the team was different, and the rivalry was different. In many ways, it didn’t feel like the same venue.
The snow whipped through the air on a cold Saturday night. You saw families taking their kids to their first outdoor game. You watched as they announced their lineup with actual penguins. You had players skating in front of almost 68,000 fans for the first time (and maybe only time) in their careers. You could hear the cheers of both fans, “Let’s Go Pens!” and “Let’s Go Flyers!” chanting back and forth. Nothing about this game was run of the mill. The outdoor games aren’t just a game – they are an event. One that is more about loving the sport and having a good time. Flyers fans and Pens fans weren’t nasty to each other that Saturday night like you may see at any other game. If that doesn’t highlight how unique these games are, then I don’t know what will.
Yes, there were a handful of empty seats at the start of the game, and there were some people leaving at the end of the second period or halfway through the third. That doesn’t highlight that the games are any less coveted by fans and players. What that shows is that at a certain point, sitting out in the snow with a wind chill hovering around 20 degrees when they sold out of blankets and most merchandise before the end of the first period is no fun no matter what the event. Also, families with young kids needed to head home – an “8pm start time” (read: closer to 8:30pm) means it will be at least 11pm before the game is over. Still, after sitting through six of these games – in the stands with fans – I can assure that no one is taking these games for granted. If anything, the more they have the more fans want to see them back in their hometown.