On Jan. 1, the NHL will stage its sixth Winter Classic when the Red Wings host the Maple Leafs in front of an expected 107,000 fans at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. Since the first one in Buffalo in 2008, the open air game has exploded into the league's premier regular-season event and what was then a single event has become a multi-day festival, with alumni games, special uniforms and a television show chronicling the lead-up to New Year's Day.
And so it shouldn't come as a surprise that the NHL is trying to capitalize on a home run of an idea by expanding its outdoor game program. The league has played multiple outdoor games in a year once before: In 2011, weeks after the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh, the league revived the Heritage Classic brand with a game at Calgary's McMahon Stadium. But this year, the league's adding even more outdoor games: The Stadium Series puts one game each in Chicago and Los Angeles, plus a pair of games in New York City, bring the total number of outdoor contests this season to six.
John Collins, the NHL's COO, is the man behind the launch of the Winter Classic, as well as many other league events, initiatives and partnerships. Collins spoke with Sports on Earth about the growth of outdoor hockey; here are 10 takeaways from that conversation.
1. The Winter Classic Will Always Be Must-See-TV
The league has no intention of letting every city get a turn hosting a Winter Classic. The Stadium Series allows smaller markets the chance to play in outdoor games, but January 1 will remain reserved for high-profile teams -- particularly when the venue itself can become part of the appeal, as it did at iconic ballparks like Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, and this year with Michigan Stadium and its huge capacity. The NHL, after all, has to look out for its TV partners. Says Collins: "I think the Winter Classic, because of the NBC window, and because of the January 1 date, I think it needs to work well for TV, with the opportunity to drive a significant rating."
2. Think Local, Act Global
I've always understood the Stadium Series is designed to have an impact on a local level, rather than a national level. It's important to the NHL -- and to NBC -- that the whole country gets excited about the Winter Classic. But the Stadium Series is geared toward specific markets. A Rangers-Devils matchup or a Rangers-Islanders matchup might not be attractive to the entire country, but the hope is that fans in the New York market will watch. And the 6:30 p.m. PT start time for the Dodger Stadium game isn't ideal for fans in the East, but good for those on the West Coast. With the focus shifted toward building an event that will appeal to the local market, the NHL can get to cities that "otherwise wouldn't be able to carry the weight of that January 1 schedule," as Collins puts it. He explains that the outdoor games give the league a higher profile in whatever cities they're played in. Media attention helps build buzz, which in turn helps to grow interest in the sport.
3. Not Wearing Out Its Welcome
The risk of increasing the number of outdoor games is that they each become something less special --that the novelty of the games will wear off too quickly. Explains Collins: "Obviously we have something that's incredibly successful in the Winter Classic and the Heritage Classic, and so you don't ever want to damage that or dilute it. That's been the commentary. The flip side of it is, the games are so good in each of these markets. They've been so good overall for the business and for the growth of the game that you just want to get to these other experiences." This is, of course, just another way of saying what you already knew: Outdoor games, thus far, have been a license to print money (as well as a way to build buzz), and the league wants to take advantage of those opportunities. Says Collins: "It's a lot, along with the game at the Big House, but this is a pretty unique year, and it's a pretty good opportunity for us to take center stage."
4. It's All About Merch
Okay, this is not a surprise. But Collins's phrasing shows just how lucrative the Winter Classic has been: "The merchandising has been a phenomenon. It truly is like having a 31st team in the league. There's nobody that's going to these and not buying a sweater, or a toque, or mittens, or a scarf, to sort of celebrate the event."
5. Thank Heaven For HBO
I asked Collins how the league can keep the Winter Classic special now that there are several other outdoor games, besides making sure that there's a good matchup or an interesting venue. I threw out a couple of things I've noticed: That the vintage-style Winter Classic jerseys, for instance, are generally nicer than the chromified, cookie-cutter jerseys teams will wear in the Stadium Series games. Or that only the Winter Classic gets the HBO 24/7 treatment. Collins seemed particularly excited about the excellent HBO series, and how it can be a tool to grow the sport. "Once the crews show up at the two teams, that begins to drive a lot of enthusiasm for the game that just kind of builds," says Collins. "It's a perfect series, because it's got a beginning, middle, and end, with the game itself, the Winter Classic, being the end. "
24/7 also has the potential to appeal to more than just the die-hards, who don't really need to be sold on the sport or its big events. "I came from the NFL," says Collins, "and I spent a lot of time with NFL Films. And I think what you see that HBO does very well is that they slow the game down so you can see what happens in the fastest game in the world. You can see it from different angles….You can just focus on the stories, and the characters, and the personalities that you want to follow. And I think that's helped to expose the game in different ways, and the quality of the athlete who plays hockey. They're probably among the most skilled athletes in the world. These are tough guys and you have to admire and respect what it takes to play the game, and that kind of comes through."
6. The Suggestion Box Is Open
Every hockey fan has an idea or two for what would make a cool outdoor game venue, and the choice of site is the source of much speculation every year. But Collins says he likes that chatter, and mentioned a couple of the most common suggestions. "The fun part of it is listening to fans talk about where they'd like to see a game," he says. "You know, Pittsburgh-Philadelphia out at Penn State is one of those that always shows up. People have talked about doing something out at the frozen tundra out at Lambeau." Collins didn't necessarily say that the league was considering the two venues he mentioned, but staging a game in either would mean a willingness to go into markets that don't actually have an NHL team.
7. Nationals Park is the Frontrunner for the 2015 Winter Classic
The NHL has already announced that the Capitals will host next season's Winter Classic, but neither a venue nor an opponent has been decided. When I spoke to Collins earlier this month, he said the league would soon start to do its diligence as part of the site search. I asked about the suggestion that Oriole Park at Camden Yards could host the game, and he said that Baltimore sites would indeed be considered. That said, Collins says, "There's something special about a game in the nation's capital." He said they'd look at Nationals Park, FedEx Field, RFK Stadium, Oriole Park, and M&T Bank Stadium, and hinted that Nationals Park was "probably the front-runner."
8. Dates Are Crucial
It's no coincidence that the New York games will take place in the week leading up to the Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium. Nor is it a coincidence that the game at Dodger Stadium is scheduled for the night before the Grammys in Los Angeles. The game between the Penguins and Blackhawks in Chicago on March 1, meanwhile, was scheduled for the weekend after the Sochi Olympics. "We have to find a better way to make better use of the Olympics to promote the game and our players," said Collins. Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane are among the biggest stars on Team Canada and Team USA, respectively, and players like Jonathan Toews and Evgeni Malkin could have a huge impact in Sochi, as well. "You might have the heroes of the gold medal game playing;" says Collins about the Stadium Series game in Chicago. "You get teammates who become rivals who become teammates again, which is a great storyline."
9. Venue Size Matters
The increase in the number of outdoor games means that the league won't have to wait as long to return to cities that have already staged successful games. (The game in Chicago will be that city's second outdoor NHL contest.) I asked if the league would consider returning to a venue like Fenway Park, and Collins' answer was telling. "Fenway was such a phenomenal experience," he said. "It was great. The contrast is, Gillette [Stadium] is a pretty great facility as well, and it gives you so many more seats potentially to come out and experience the game." More seats, of course, equals more tickets, which equals more money. Collins continued: "Like with the Toronto-Detroit matchup in the Big House, we talked about it, but frankly, how do we schedule that game at Comerica? We felt like it wouldn't be fair. The demand would be so much greater than the capacity of the stadium. So we were able to come to an agreement with the Red Wings and the Illich family [to stage other events at Comerica Park]." In the case of Michigan Stadium, of course, the NHL can also promote the shattering of the league's attendance record. But even when that's not a factor, it sounds like, all things being equal, bigger is better for these games.
10. The Future Is Hazy
This year's Stadium Series will involve four games in three cities, but Collins says it's too soon to know how many cities will be involved next year, or even if it'll involve multiple cities. "I think we'll figure that out after the season," says Collins.