I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with the NHL. Growing up in Los Angeles, I wasn’t a real big hockey fan. Sure, I went to an occasional game and when the Kings got Gretzky I became slightly more than just the casual fan. By the late-80s / early-90s I could probably name several players on each team. My fandom probably peaked around the 1996-1997. At that time I really liked the Detroit Red Wings. They had arguably the best rivalry in sports at the time with the Colorado Avalanche and they won their first Stanley Cup in something like 40 years. To top it off, I was involved with the Stanley Cup home video release and I got to meet several of the players – all good guys.
Since then, like many people, the NHL has receded in my life. I chalk it up to too many new franchises and the adoption of a points system that is confusing, at least to me. I’ve been critical of the NHL before on this blog, but I’ve also praised it, specifically for its Winter Classic. The Winter Classic, a regular season NHL game played outdoors on New Year’s Day originated in 2008 with the Buffalo Sabres hosting the Pittsburgh Penguins at Ralph Wilson Stadium (where the NFL Buffalo Bills play) in front of the largest crowd in NHL history – 71,217.
Fantastic idea, great execution. Well done NHL. So, how do they try and top that for the 2009 edition? How about this: pit two of the original six NHL franchises – the Chicago Blackhawks and the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings – and have them play at Wrigley Field (home to Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs).
Here’s what I really like about the Winter Classic concept – the NHL isn’t trying to be a “me too” with this one. The NBA and MLB do great All-Star games. The NFL and MLB do great championships with the Super Bowl and World Series respectively (no offense to hockey fans, I think the Stanley Cup is a great tradition, but it isn’t as mainstream as the Super Bowl or World Series). The NFL and MLB also have strong season openers.
So the NHL created something entirely new and something it would be very difficult for other leagues to copy – that’s a fantastic Blue Ocean Strategy.
In addition, the NHL has created a ton of hooks for the casual fan to get caught on. Like wine? They’ve created a Winter Classic vintage. Are you a sports traditionalist? Check out these sweet Red Wings and Blackhawks throwback jerseys. Art lover? Find out about the sports statuary connection between Chicago and Detroit. There’s loads more of course. You should go check out the Red Wings Hockeytown blog and go follow Twitter monster Shannon Paul. She works for the Red Wings and I’m sure will be providing fantastic insight and inside info to her followers.
To me, this is how the NHL comes back. Creating a unique experience that honors the great traditions of this sport, which for my money, is still just about the best live sporting event you can attend, and put’s a new spin on it. I hope the NHL continues to try innovative efforts like the Winter Classic.