Saturday, September 22, 2007

Another Take on the NHL Winter Classic

NHL logoSabres logoPens logoHere's Damien Cox at his not quite contrarian best with a column in which he tries to rip to bits the outdoor match-up this season between the Buffalo Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

I usually like reading Cox for the entertainment value though I don't always agree with his opinions. He enjoys ruffling feathers and being harsh in his criticism of the Leafs, other teams and the NHL in general. Conflict is the basis of all good writing whether it be novels, scripts or yes, even sports columns. There are other hockey writers who seem more intent on securing and maintaining their access to the good ol' boys network that is the NHL, with articles that at best put a positive spin on everything related to the team they cover or at worst are nothing more than hagiography. That's fine as well and while I read both, I'll take the guys who rip things with abandon over the professional sycophants.

Disagree with Cox on this one though. He has a nice set-up where he blasts the NHL for constantly experimenting on a whim only to reverse their original plans and then casually implement another gimmick or two. Beyond that there's not much of his criticism of the Winter Classic that stands up, in my opinion.

First, the analogies he offers regarding other sports really aren't applicable. He suggests that it would be ridiculous if an NFL game were to be played inside a hockey arena on a makeshift field, in reference to the fact that the Winter Classic will be played inside a football stadium.

NHL Winter ClassicWell, football never was played inside in its original form and the location for the outdoor NHL game is simply to accommodate the number of fans willing to attend (and make the game as profitable as possible.) That the stadium is normally used for football is irrelevant. As for the rink being "makeshift," according to this article, the rink set-up and its construction alone will cost well over a million dollars and will closely mimic the conditions in all current NHL teams' arenas.

He also provides a few more analogies that have little to no merit. The NBA staging a regular season game on an asphalt court in Compton or a major league baseball game in a corn field in Iowa? Though NHL games never were played outside, the fact is, hockey originated outdoors by necessity and this event is a throwback to that while maintaining the modern rink. For his comparisons to be applicable to the NHL scenario at all, the Pens/Sabres match-up would have to take place on a frozen lake without any of the expensive and high-tech installations that are going to be made. The far-fetched situations he offers are not really similar to the unique aspect of hockey being played outside in far colder weather as compared to its indoor version. Pro baseball is still played outside (and in the case of recreational basketball) with little difference in terms of climate or atmosphere as compared to hockey.

Even if you assume the respective sports leagues would see any merit in such proposals (they wouldn't because, again, there's no real comparison) the logistics of building a temporary diamond and sufficient stands in a cornfield render the analogy fairly worthless as does the lack of any nostalgia that would be associated with both examples.

The claim that this is risky for both teams involved in terms of the regular season points at stake and the fact the game could turn on weather related interference also holds little weight. Both teams have agreed to the game and will play under the same circumstances. Just as poor ice conditions, unpredictable rebounds off end boards or some kind of game delay due to arena malfunction, fan interference or other unexpected event can affect the flow and potential outcome of any indoor game, both teams in the Winter Classic will be subject to the same conditions. In fact, in the case of the al fresco tilt between the Pens and the Sabres, this is even less of a factor as no team has an edge regarding familiarity with the rink conditions.

As mentioned in the column, the concern for poor weather conditions causing the game to be canceled and the resulting logistical problems is an important issue. The NHL is working on a contingency plan and should have one in place shortly.

While it's easy to blast the NHL for its litany of problems and poor decisions, I see the Winter Classic as a positive event.

Now, are any players going to drop the gloves knowing that their hands may go numb as they smack the raw, frost-bitten flesh of each other's faces? Will a fog from the players' heavy exhalations and steaming sweaters and equipment hover over the rink like a surreal nostalgic haze? Will that magical sound of pucks clacking on sticks reverberate all the way up to those spectators in the last few rows? The fans in attendance will find out as they take part in a memorable experience and hopefully witness a great game in the process.

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