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NHL outdoors too much

Commentary

April 21, 2013
By John Mehno (jmehnocolumn@gmail.com) , The Altoona Mirror

PITTSBURGH - The Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Chicago Blackhawks is a marquee matchup that couldn't happen this year because the lockout-shortened schedule didn't allow inter-conference games.

It will happen next season. Too bad the NHL wants to turn a great game into a marketing gimmick.

Under a plan for a "Stadium Series" that was revealed last week, the Penguins would play the Blackhawks outdoors at Chicago's Soldier Field next March 1.

The NHL has had some impressive marketing success with the Winter Classic, played annually on Jan. 1. The Penguins have participated twice in the five-year history of the event, playing at Buffalo in the 2008 debut, and hosting Washington at Heinz Field in 2011.

The Winter Classic is a great spectacle and lousy hockey. It's the hockey game for people who don't like hockey.

There was snow falling in Buffalo when the Penguins played there, and that made for compelling television. The conditions made it difficult for the players, though. The game in Pittsburgh had to be postponed for a day because it was too warm.

The ice was a mess, with pooling water that made it difficult to move the puck. The Penguins' considerable skill was negated by the conditions.

The players didn't say much about the farce because they knew the NHL didn't want any negative comments. They also didn't want to be perceived as making excuses for losing the game. But they privately admitted what a joke it was to play an NHL game under those conditions.

The Winter Classic is made for TV. NBC loves it. It's a curiosity to draw viewers who would be unlikely to watch an NHL game, no matter who was playing.

The league promotes the romance of players returning to their roots and playing on an outdoor rink. But in the run-up to the 2011 Winter Classic, most Penguins players didn't have those memories. Yes, they played pick-up games on backyard ponds.

But by the time they were playing organized youth hockey, they were playing indoors on properly-maintained ice. Hockey is serious business in Canada.

In addition to making NBC happy, the Winter Classic is a big money maker for the NHL. Most NHL rinks have about 18,000 seats. The Buffalo outdoor game had attendance of 71,217. The game at Heinz Field sold 68,111 tickets. So there are triple gate receipts for one game, plus merchandise specific to the event.

The NHL figures that if one outdoor game is good, five more would be even better. Wrong.

Money trumps everything in sports, so the NHL will probably tell the Penguins and Blackhawks to go play outside. That's too bad for real hockey fans.

Smile for the camera

The Pirates start a 10-game trip Monday in Philadelphia. This will allow Root Sports to resume its mission to show every person wearing a Pirates cap or shirt in a road ballpark.

Mehno can be reached at johnmehnocolumn@gmail.com

 
 
 

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