Monday, January 3, 2011

The Day the NHL Grew Up

There was always hype.  From the first Winter Classic in 2008, the build up was intense.  The teams were up-and-coming, highlighted by the face of the NHL in Sidney Crosby.  Aside from that, not many teams were too interested.  They were leery.  Then the game happened and it's ending was pure perfection.

It captured the NHL, and sports world's, attention unlike the first Heritage Classic in 2003 between the Oilers and Canadiens, which seemed to be more of a footnote than a first.  The big teams came then, with everyone asking for a part in the game.  Detroit and Chicago next.  Philadelphia and Boston followed.  This year Pittsburgh was back playing their heated rival the Washington Capitals.

On January 1st, 2011, two of the league's most well known teams were taking place in the Winter Classic.  Crosby was once again at the forefront while his Capital counterpart, Alexander Ovechkin, became the face of the Red, White, and Blue.  The difference this year was that the hype was going beyond Crosby and Ovechkin.  It was accompanied by something much bigger than anything the NHL had enjoyed before: massive coverage.

Mark 2011 down in your calendar, NHL fans.  This was the year the Bridgestone Winter Classic became what the NHL had hoped after it's first incarnation in 2008: a spectacle.  In the past is was merely a marquee event.  This year, it went to another level.

For the first time in it's history this game became more than a game.  It became an event.  There were celebrities (Pat Sajak, Stephen Page, Styx, Chef Duff from Ace of Cakes) all doing small events that otherwise would probably not be worth their time.  There was amazing coverage from all outlets beyond NHL specific events.

In the past, it was about the game.  This time around the events leading up to it took on an almost Super Bowl feel.  The parties thrown by corporations (including the NHL, American Eagle, Pepsi One) to the ancillary events (the city vs. city sandwich off, the outdoor rink pitting youth hockey teams from Ovechkin and Crosby's home teams) to the event that was nearly as big as the Winter Classic itself, the Alumni Game between Capitals and Penguins legends that had as much buzz as the actual game.

For the first time in the four years of the NHL's Winter Classic, the game was outshone by the spectacle.  The game was a decent game, made memorable by the elements playing a factor in the rain that came during the game.  The event was what was on display.  The best of Pittsburgh came through for three days during the Winter Classic celebration.

For the first time, the NHL has what it wanted.  They had their "it" thing to do.  With HBO, celebrities, the game's two top stars, and over 4.5 million people watching they had what is most likely their Super Bowl.  Their event they can plan around for months in advance, their one game spectacle that is so unique to only them that no one else can do it.

The NHL has finally found what it was looking for in the 2011 NHL Winter Classic.  While Sid and Ovechkin didn't quite deliver (with both having points over turned by penalty), it will live on as the moment the league finally found what it was after.

Much like the events surrounding the Winter Classic, the game will be secondary in history.  It has the potential to be the turning point for the NHL in terms of national popularity.  It could lead to going back to ESPN and in turn more fans.  Looking back years from now, this game could easily be the turning point and the catalyst which has changed the fortune of the NHL.

With that I say to the NHL: This is your chance to get back to relevance, NHL.  You had your biggest audience due to the change in time and a memorable game in terms of people saying, "Did you see them skate in all that rain?"  You still have some Olympic glow and now you have your marquee event coming off the league's biggest ratings since 1974.  You have one more show on HBO.  This is your chance.  Do not blow it.

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