In recent months, ESPN has tried awfully hard to convince college football fans that staging the national semifinal games on New Year's Eve is a wonderful new tradition. But many people work during the day when Dec. 31 doesn't fall on a weekend, and it's traditionally a night for partying and watching the scene from Times Square on TV. The promotional campaign reached a hilarious peak during an episode of "General Hospital" earlier this week, in which references to games were awkwardly shoehorned into the characters' dialogue. The ratings for the games, unsurprisingly, were way down from last year.
Contrast that with what's happened over the past decade for hockey on New Year's Day: Since the introduction of the NHL's Winter Classic, fans actually have come to see Jan. 1 as a day for that sport, and specifically, for watching the spectacle of a game played outdoors in front of a huge crowd. It's not like the introduction and growth of the Winter Classic was exactly organic: It was dreamed up by the league and NBC as a way to take an otherwise unremarkable regular-season game and turn it into a ratings monster. But they also understood the appeal of putting a made-for-TV event on a national holiday, and staging it in a venue that would pique the interest of even casual fans. They also understood that not every team can draw an audience, and the league has openly admitted it will rotate only among strong hockey markets with national appeal.
(It's worth noting that the concept of popularity is relative here: Even the best Winter Classic ratings are lower than those of yesterday's disappointing CFP semifinals. But for a regular season hockey game, the well-received Winter Classic is considered a big hit.)
As popular as it is, though, the Winter Classic is also at something of a crossroads. The best versions have relied on an interesting venue to grab attention: historic ballparks like Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, or a ginormous football venue like Michigan Stadium. But there are only so many stadiums capable of attracting eyeballs on their own -- especially if you limit it to those in existing NHL markets. Before the game at the Big House in Ann Arbor, Heinz Field and Citizens Bank Park served as hosts. Last year, the Capitals and Blackhawks squared off at Nationals Park, a venue that opened less than a decade ago. And this year's game took place at Gillette Stadium, a fine football venue, but not exactly an historic one.
Of course, a game like this is all about the visuals, and the overhead shots in Foxboro looked as pretty as ever. So did the sight of the teams approaching the ice with the Boston Pops playing live, or of the old-timey-looking uniforms created specifically for the game.
Even if the game counts for the same two points as any other, this is the one the hockey world talks about for days: P.K. Subban's outfit (and his custom throwback skates), Claude Julien's Belichickian hoodie, Rob Gronkowski's taped interview in which he talked about what he'd be like as a hockey player. (Essentially, a terrifying winger. Says Gronk: "I'll do some slapshots, get some goals.") And that's to say nothing about the ancillary events, like the alumni game on New Year's Eve.
The Winter Classic game itself was a good one this year, at least if you're a Canadiens fan who got to see your team control play all afternoon and come away with a 5-1 win over the Bruins. But the game is usually something of an afterthought -- even when, like this year, it involves two rivals that are battling for position in the standings. Sometimes there's a moment that sticks -- Sidney Crosby's shootout winner in 2008, Henrik Lundqvist's game-saving penalty-shot stop in 2012--but for the most part, it's the spectacle that we'll remember.
At some point, though, one imagines the NHL will need to start getting even more creative, like bringing the game to neutral-site cities with appealing venues. (Think Lambeau Field or Happy Valley or Notre Dame Stadium.) Indeed, Gary Bettman said recently that the league has discussed such a thing, even if it's just talk at this point. Returning to high-profile venues like Wrigley is an option, as well. Or maybe the NHL will even think way outside the box some day and try a game in a non-traditional venue, like a public park.
For now, though, the venue itself looks like it'll remain secondary to featuring prominent players, high-profile teams, and heated rivalries. Reports say that next year's game will see the Toronto Maple Leafs host the New York Rangers at BMO Field, a soccer-specific MLS venue that usually seats between 30,000 and 34,000 fans (though additional seating could be brought in). That game would be part of the Leafs' 100th anniversary festivities, and surely such an angle would be played up, especially with the game taking place in Canada for the first time.
Going forward, the trick for the NHL will be to keep the game interesting year after year. Settling into a routine is one thing, but feeling stale is another.