NHL – Winter Classic preview

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The New York Rangers are set to host the Buffalo Sabres at Shea Stad… err, Citi Field (usual home of the New York Mets) in the latest edition of the NHL’s Winter Classic outdoor game on New Year’s Day. It’s the 10th time the league is putting on the special showcase.

Do you still care about the Winter Classic?

Greg Wyshynski: As an event, I care about the Winter Classic like I care about “Law and Order” reruns.

The first one was a novelty that became an institution. Then there was a parade of spinoffs. Some of them were quite successful — that Dodger Stadium outdoor battle between the Ducks and Kings was the Mariska Hargitay of Stadium Series games. Some of them were not so successful — that Wild blowout of the Blackhawks in Minnesota was like … well, whatever that Menendez brothers “Law and Order” was supposed to be.

The Winter Classic lost its luster due to oversaturation, but just like stumbling onto an hour of Lennie Briscoe and Jack McCoy in a classic “Law and Order” on cable, there’s still something special about the original outdoor hockey game.

That’s especially true if you’re on site for one. Much like the NHL All-Star Game, the Winter Classic is a made-for-television event that has become exponentially more entertaining for the crowds who attend it. When you’re sitting in the same elements the players are skating in, buying considerable amounts of team winter swag to coat your body and tailgating beforehand like it’s a college football game, you very much care about the Winter Classic in a way that doesn’t translate on television.

That said, there’s also still something quaint and traditional about waking up in a New Year’s Day haze, cleaning the champagne off the television and flipping over to watch what is undoubtedly an Original Six team you’ve already seen three times in an outdoor game.

Or a “Law and Order” rerun. Whatever your comfort TV is.

Emily Kaplan: Am I still going to tune in to the Winter Classic? Of course. It’s become a regular viewing habit for me since it debuted 10 years ago. Do I still care about it? If I’m being honest, I believe the event has lost some of its luster.

Part of that is an oversaturation of outdoor games. Last season, there were four events (better than 2014, when there were six!). While the scenery changes and we highlight the fabrics of different cities and stadiums, it’s inherently the same stage — Mother Nature is unpredictable! How will players adapt? — with the same stakes — two points for a regular season win — with the same storylines — reminders of pond hockey as a kid. What’s worse, it’s the same cast of characters. I’m wondering how many combinations of the Blackhawks, Red Wings, Maple Leafs, Flyers, Penguins, Rangers and Capitals can be concocted. I love the concept of the event. I appreciate how in sports marketing today, when it’s hard to sell tickets to people with infinite other ways to spend their entertainment dollars, plus the comforts of home calling, offering an experience can set a live event apart. I also understand how the NHL can commodify this and dozens of teams are asking to take part.

But tuning in to the “Road to the Winter Classic” television series, now airing on NBCSN, I can’t help but feel like the drama is manufactured. It’s great that the NHL has used this event as a vehicle to highlight personalities and behind-the-scenes footage that helps fans connect to teams. But the great scenes — for example, highlighting the fratty living arrangements in Tribeca that Kevin Hayes, Brady Skjei and Jimmy Vesey inhabit — are pushed against awkward transitions, forcing us into believing these guys are spending a month stressing over their big matchup with “rival” Jack Eichel and the cellar-dwelling Sabres. It’s a signature league event, and many would be disappointed to see it go. I just would love to see it regain its luster — and exclusivity — again.

Chris Peters: Weirdly, I’m still very into the Winter Classic. I say weirdly because it’s not usually a great hockey game, but I have zero problem with being pulled out of the regular season for the spectacle that the game remains. It’s out of the ordinary. It still garners more attention than any other regular-season game, and the visuals remain incredible. I will view every photo of every gallery from the outdoor games because the images are so compelling.

This year’s game doesn’t necessarily get me terribly excited from a matchup or venue standpoint, but I’ll still watch. I think it’s a good idea for the NHL to take the game to Notre Dame next year, as there’s a historic venue and a beautiful campus for all of your necessary scene-setting B-roll. But I do think the Winter Classic and Stadium Series games are becoming less and less important from a ratings standpoint. Where the outdoor games still have a fair amount of value is what it does for the local team and the city in which they’re held. Again, there’s enough going on in New York for it not to make as big of an impact in that way either, but in other locales, the game generates a lot of buzz.

That is still a good thing for the NHL, as it gives them more inventory to throw various cities a bone from an events standpoint. Not everyone gets to host an All-Star Game or Stanley Cup Final and get all of the buzz that goes with it. I’ve been to Stadium Series games in both Chicago (Soldier Field) and Minnesota (TCF Bank Stadium), and both venues had great energy, and there was a good amount of local buzz. The league is still selling a ton of tickets to these games, even when they don’t sell out. I think (and hope) we’ll see fewer outdoor games each season, but the Winter Classic in particular remains a valuable enough property to the league and remains just unique and visually appealing enough to keep me engaged as an annual viewer.

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