Winter Classic 2014: Biggest hockey game ever, but can it beat the bowls?

NHL's outdoor Winter Classic has already proven a hit, and Wednesday's will be the biggest ever. But the league is planning five more outdoor games this season, which could backfire.

Paul Sancya/AP
Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf (3) stretches during practice on the outdoor rink for the NHL Winter Classic hockey game against the Detroit Red Wings at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich., Tuesday.

Henrik Zetterberg, the full-bearded Detroit Red Wings frontman, stepped out onto the frozen pond behind his big house near Detroit last week and, leaning on his stick, pondered how his hockey dreams came true.

One thing he recalled was how he started skating as a boy on a lake in Sweden. The family would bring skates on their ice fishing trip and the kids would carve the ice they waited for pike or perch to bite.

Mr. Zetterberg’s tender memory on the snow-blanketed pond ice in Detroit was captured by HBO’s insta-documentary show “24/7,” which is chronicling the rough-and-tumble path of Zetterberg and his Wings to their Original Six meeting with the Toronto Maple Leafs at the outdoor Winter Classic at the University of Michigan’s “Big House” stadium on New Year’s Day. The event is expected to become the best-attended hockey event of all time, with some 107,000 people ready to brave 18 degree F weather and likely snow for the 1 p.m. Eastern puck drop.

Zetterberg’s moment also seemed to perfectly embody the mood of an NHL in transition. After making historic TV deals in the US last year and in Canada this year, and on a roll when it comes to profitability and team values, the league has begun to see long-term viability in banking on its roots.

“The brand that we have looked to develop is the romance and nostalgia with everyone's first experience with the game, which typically is on the frozen lakes and ponds," NHL chief operating officer John Collins tells USA Today.

The Sixth annual New Year’s Winter Classic is likely to fulfill Commissioner Gary Bettman’s plan to, if not dominate, then at least put a chink in the New Year’s Day college bowl supremacy. But a string of outdoor games to follow in 2014 across the US and Canada will test whether the excitement of the Winter Classic can reap profit and fan appreciation even in places like Los Angeles, where promoters are struggling to sell out the upcoming Los Angeles Kings-Anaheim Ducks matchup at Dodger Stadium.

“All of the ingredients are here for the NHL to add another incredible chapter into what has undoubtedly become its signature event, one that has helped Commissioner Gary Bettman seem not so crazy when he said he wanted to challenge college football for New Year's Day supremacy,” writes CBS Sports columnist Brian Stubits. “Hockey's Granddaddy of Them All is set to have its grandest spectacle to date.”

The five Winter Classics so far have been among the most-watched hockey matches ever, a trend the NHL is expecting to keep up on Wednesday afternoon in Ann Arbor.

The New Year’s Day Winter Classic 2014 will feature two teams that, yes, are so-called Original Six franchises, but which are both facing challenges on and off the ice. The once-dominant Red Wings barely made the playoffs last spring year and have struggled since the retirement of veteran captain Nick Lidstrom. But the team has some of the league’s very best players, Zetterberg and “Magic Man” Pavel Datsyuk.

Behind leading scorer Phil Kessel and captain Dion Phaneuf – whose special pregame proceedings include a tense game of ping pong – the Maple Leafs are on the cusp of a breakout year.

While the standings won’t move too much depending on which team wins, it’s a matter of Original Six pride and showcasing a league that has largely ended its expansion era in order to consolidate teams where there are lots of people who like hockey. Take the sale of the Atlanta Thrashers two years ago to chilly Winnipeg, where the club within a few months doubled its value and regularly packs arenas where the same team could barely muster a smattering of fans in the ATL.

By expanding the Winter Classic to a series of six outdoor games this year, including the one in Los Angeles, the league is also monetizing that nostalgia with $200-and-up seats for contests that unfailingly sell out. Three of the contests – the Winter Classic, the Rangers and New Jersey Devils at Yankee Stadium, and the Penguins versus Blackhawks at Soldier Field – have already sold out, while the league is discounting tickets to the three other games in Vancouver, Los Angeles, and a second game at Yankee Stadium.

“The Winter Classic's uniqueness is going to be tested this year,” writes Dan Di Sciullo for the Sports Network. “One thing that makes the game so special and such a hit is that it is different. But this game marks the start of a stretch of six outdoor games in the span of two months. It's a real concern that outdoor game fatigue is going to set in and it will become tired, somewhat similar to the criticism many have had about HBO's groundbreaking series 24/7 in its third year. The novelty is wearing thin.”

Only time will tell the long-term viability of the outdoor game, but for players like Zetterberg, who fell in love with hockey in the middle of a lake in winter, the long wait for a game in the snow is almost over.

“I can’t wait,” he told HBO’s documentarians.

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