NHL in danger of overdoing outdoor hockey games

The NHL held its first official outdoor regular-season hockey game back in 2003 when the Montreal Canadiens faced off against the Edmonton Oilers. The event was held at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium and dubbed the Heritage Classic. Most fans believed it was a one-off, unique affair, but the league is still holding outdoor games 13 years later and has four more scheduled for 2016/17. Not everybody is enamored with these games though as some critics feel the NHL is simply overdoing it by now holding several of them each year.

The 2003 event was a huge success as it attracted 57,167 fans and led to the annual outdoor game known as the Winter Classic, which is typically held in a U.S. city on New Year’s Day. However, many fans may not realize that the roots of these outdoor fixtures can be traced as far back as 1954 when the Detroit Red Wings took on a team of prisoners at Marquette Branch Prison in Michigan. There were no fans at this match though as an open-air rink was created and then fenced in for the game.

Two years later, the Boston Bruins headed to Bay Roberts, Newfoundland and played a series of short outdoor games against four local squads on the same day just for the fun of it. It wasn’t until 35 years later that the NHL ventured outdoors once again. This occurred when the New York Rangers took on the Los Angeles Kings in a September, 1991 pre-season outing at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas with 14,000 fans on hand. It was the first NHL-sanctioned game to take place outside and once the league realized if it could hold a game in Las Vegas with the temperature reaching 27 °C then it could basically hold one anywhere.

It took the league 22 years to introduce the Heritage Classic though. Since then, outdoor games have become a common thread with the league and they’ve helped it set new attendance records on a regular basis. The 2008 Winter Classic in Buffalo drew 71,217 spectators to shatter the 2003 mark and that record was smashed in 2014 when the Toronto Maple Leafs visited Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor and faced the Red Wings in front of 105,491 spectators.  

The NHL was actually given credit where it wasn’t due though as it was Jon Miller of NBC Sports who suggested in 2005 that the league hold an annual game which would be televised by his network. Three years later the annual Winter Classic was born and in 2013 the NHL Stadium Series was introduced. The busiest season for outdoor games was 2013/14 when six contests were held. These consisted of four Stadium Series matches along with a Heritage Classic and Winter Classic event.

Up to now, 19 of league’s 30 clubs have been involved in a total of 15 regular-season outdoor games in 13 different North American cities. New York and Chicago have hosted two events each and seven teams have played in more than one contest with Chicago, Pittsburgh and the New York Rangers each appearing in three. The NHL has announced games in Toronto, Winnipeg, St. Louis and Pittsburgh for next season, which happens to be the league’s 100th anniversary. It will also be the Maple Leafs’ 100th birthday while St. Louis, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia will be celebrating their 50th year in the league.

Some fans are getting a little bored with the games though as they often feature the same teams. They’re disappointed that the newly-created Centennial Classic in Toronto next year will once again feature the Red Wings taking on the Leafs. In addition, the NHL has scheduled this game for January 1st with the Chicago vs St. Louis tilt taking place the very next day. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman points out that outdoor games still draw huge crowds. And that may be so, but the novelty has worn off on the casual TV viewer. This year’s Winter Classic saw Boston host Montreal at Gillette Stadium in Massachusetts with the television ratings being the lowest ever for the annual event at just 1.6 with the highest number of  viewers being 2.78 million.

Typical ratings for the game range from 2.2 to 2.5, but they’ve dipped under 2.0 for the past two seasons. It appears many hockey fans across the continent are losing interest in the concept since there are now several outdoor games to choose from each year. If the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day was the one and only outdoor event held each season it may once again become something special with casual fans.