There’s no doubt that the NHL’s Winter Classic is popular, and it’s certainly profitable. But if you consider all of the elements, this printing press can be a double-edged sword.
The first Winter Classic was held at Ralph Wilson Stadium on New Years Day in 2008 – drawing an NHL record crowd of 71, 217 fans. The Pittsburgh Penguins snuck past the Buffalo Sabres in a 2-1 shootout, and the inaugural classic was a wild success.
So the NHL booked Wrigley Field for the following year. Featuring one of the oldest and most bitter rivalries in sports – the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks filled the stadium to capacity and attracted the highest television rating of any hockey game in 33 years.
Since the inaugural event, 710,716 people have attended the NHL Winter Classic. In 2014 alone, the match earned a profit in excess of $20 million. Each of the six games have earned $3 to $5 million dollars (and that doesn’t include souvenir sales).
Fans and advertisers are spending money, and the NHL is eagerly scooping it up.
The Winter Classic is considered a league-wide event, even though it counts as a home game for the host city’s team. After expenses are reimbursed to the home team, all profits are added to the NHL’s pool of revenue. That amount in turn is used to determine the salary cap level for the league’s 30 teams.
Players benefit financially from these games via a higher salary cap, but do they actually want to play in them? Because instead of a temperature controlled, well-lit arena with a flawless ice surface – NHL players get something completely different.
The Winter Classic makes profit a certainty but it also creates a risky environment for professional athletes to perform. The possibility of injury for vision impaired goalies is high, for skaters even more so, and the concept of home ice advantage is essentially eliminated.
As a former Division I goaltender at Bradley University (and longtime hockey enthusiast), here’s my take: there shouldn’t be curveballs in hockey.
JOSÉ, CAN YOU SEE?
This probably isn’t shocking, but playing hockey in snow flurries makes it difficult to see.
There’s nothing fun about stopping a frozen puck traveling at 95 MPH, especially when they hit an exposed seam in your equipment or directly on the toes of your skates.
Of course, that’s providing you can even see the puck.
When it’s snowing with strong wind gusts, finding the puck is like trying to see through a giant snow globe. Driving snow can sting your eyes, further reducing your vision.
Add the fact that shadowy figures are intentionally blocking your vision and trying to deflect those frozen missiles, and you’ll see why stopping pucks in the Winter Classic is significantly more difficult.
Stadiums not built for hockey will have shadows in the background, making it easier for a goalie to lose sight of the puck. Unlike a well-lit indoor arena, you are playing in a venue that’s not specifically designed for the fastest game in the world. A player has split-seconds to make decisions, and a goalie has even less.
In mere nanoseconds – the net minder has to locate the puck, decide where the shot is going, and then decide what part of his body to save it with when the puck arrives. In short, the goalie has one-sixth of a second to make these decisions when a slap shot is ripped from the face-off circle.
Suboptimal lighting not only hampers a goalie’s vision, it’s downright dangerous.
IT’S A BALANCING ACT
“Footloose” worked great for Kevin Bacon and Lori Singer, but for an NHL goaltender to resemble Chris Farley in “Beverly Hills Ninja” would be a disaster.
First and foremost, a goaltender must have solid footing to operate, because a loss of balance usually means the puck ending up in the back of the net. In the Winter Classic, maintaining balance and form can be difficult because of the uneven ice.
Goalie skate blades are purposely designed to be flat, enabling a goalie to slide smoothly from side-to-side in his crease. Bad ice severely hampers that ability.
Chipped, cracked or soft ice can also wreak havoc with the net minder’s agility- especially on breakaways when he has to make sudden moves while skating backwards. The goalie is playing in an unfamiliar rink, so he has no idea how tricky the glass and their stanchions are. When the ice surface is uneven with cracks and chips, passes will bounce around like a frozen bouncy-ball.
If snow is significant it will accumulate, slowing down passes and shots. If the ice surface is too warm, passes will be too slow and often get over-skated.
Both conditions can affect the goalie’s timing, and both would significantly affect the outcome of any hockey match.
One would guess that with all those goalie obstacles, the scoring should be much higher than normal.
There have been only thirty total goals in six Winter Classic games, and ten of those came in the ’09 Blackhawks-Red Wings matchup. That’s an average of four goals in the other five games, which is basically the NHL norm.
So why aren’t offenses taking advantage of the handicaps that goaltenders face? Because the skaters face hindrances of their own.
Skating into strong headwinds slows up every attack. If it’s snowing, vision is hampered and open teammates are hard to find. On top of that, it’s pretty difficult to see the net or even where the goalie is positioned.
When temperatures are very low, it’s easy for muscles to stiffen up on the bench. This slows players down and thus leads to more injuries.
The uneven surface is a disaster waiting to happen. Even the smallest imperfection in the ice can cause a skater to catch an edge, possibly suffering serious injury to anything from their ankles to their head.
NO PLACE LIKE HOME
The fans may savor the great outdoors, but I highly doubt the players enjoy battling mother nature in a game that’s already challenging.
The Winter Classic contest is counted as a home game for the host city team, but home teams have won only one game so far.
Why? It’s not really home ice.
Everything is different – the ice surface, the boards, the glass, the site lines, and even the locker rooms (let’s not forget that hockey players are creatures of habit and routine).
It is estimated that the cost to the NHL of lost time due to player injuries is in excess of $200 million per season. So anything that can contribute to more injuries needs serious evaluation.
Injured players not only cost the teams money from lost playing time, but they possibly could miss the playoffs- where an NHL team can really make money.
Sometimes more of a good thing isn’t necessarily better. With the Stadium Series added to the schedule, the novelty of outdoor hockey could also wane.
The Winter Classic is a great idea that could be better in reality if playing conditions were more optimal; but there is lot the NHL can do to make their other 1,225 indoor games more exciting. And ultimately, more profitable.
By all means attend and enjoy a Winter Classic game if you can. Just keep in mind that nostalgic recollections of the pond hockey days are just that- memories.
And if the recalling of those days included skating at 25 MPH and launching 95 MPH slapshots under poor conditions, those dreams would be more like nightmares.