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Outdoor NHL Games Are Here to Stay, And That's a Good Thing

Sure, there can be a saturation point for outdoor games, but we’re not even close to it. Outdoor games almost always work, and it's great for the league and the local fanbases that get to see the action up close.
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The NHL’s annual outdoor “Winter Classic” game is scheduled to be held this New Year’s Day in Minnesota, with the Wild playing host to the St. Louis Blues. 

And though some may grumble that the shine is off the bumper when it comes to outdoor games, don’t let their cynicism overwhelm you. The truth is, outdoor games have been a remarkable (relatively) new generator of money and attention, and for that reason, they are not going anywhere.

In a way, it’s been a little mind-blowing that Minnesota (with its well-known love of hockey) has hosted only one outdoor game (in 2016) until now; even then, it wasn’t a marquee “Winter Classic” – it was a “Stadium Series” game. But Northerners from in and around the state will flock to Target Field in a few days because the sport is an integral part of their community. 

That link to the game doesn’t wear out over time – instead, it is spread to new generations of people. Whether overtly stated or not, bringing in more casual fans is also a key to the NHL’s outdoor games. If a fancy setting, like a playing field in a different sport, or on a picturesque lake, can draw in people who might not otherwise have given hockey a chance, then it’s worth the investment the league and players have put into this.

If the COVID-19 virus doesn’t derail the league before then, the NHL has two additional outdoor games this season – one in Nashville (for the first time ever) between the Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning, and another in Hamilton, Ont., between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres. That will leave five NHL teams – Arizona, Columbus, Florida, Carolina (whose outdoor game in Raleigh was cancelled by the pandemic last season) and expansion Seattle.

Indeed, if you just focus on cities that have hosted an NHL outdoor game, you’ll find that 10 teams – Anaheim, Arizona, Carolina, Columbus, Florida, Montreal (!), Seattle, Tampa Bay, and Vegas – have not hosted. Again, let’s reiterate – the Monteal Canadiens have never hosted an outdoor game. Yes, they’ve played in an outdoor game four times, but always as the visitor. You know the game would sell out. It’s just a matter of finding an appropriate venue.

All elements of the sport – the children’s game, the women’s game, scholastic teams and other sub-groups – can take part in the time an outdoor rink is erected by the NHL (weather permitting all of it, of course). It’s not only NHLers who are fortunate enough to skate on it. In that sense, it’s a celebration of the game itself, with any rivalry between two teams playing second fiddle.

I’ve been to a few outdoor NHL games now – in Toronto, in Chicago, in Boston; in Ann Arbour, Mich., – and they all have been wildly successful. Tens of thousands of people huddling together to create an unforgettable hockey backdrop. Now, I’m not saying the distribution of outdoor games has been equitable – Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have played in five games, which seems a little much; and Chicago’s six games (in 10 years!) is definitely a little much. But their bounty shouldn’t be at the expense of the league’s other teams.

Sure, there can be a saturation point for outdoor games, but we’re not even close to it. Once everyone has hosted a couple of games, we can talk about branching out beyond this marketing tool. But that will take a while. We also have to remember Mother Nature will scuttle some of the league’s outdoor plans, so there will be some making-up to do.

But that part is out of the league’s control. What is in the league’s control is to stick with a formula that works. And outdoor games almost always work.

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