January 1, 2018, will mark the tenth NHL Winter Classic. There have been two current Western Conference teams in all ten games, neither of them, the Colorado Avalanche.
On January 1, 2008, the inaugural NHL Winter Classic was played between the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Buffalo Sabres outside of Buffalo, New York. It was a picturesque scene. The game was played in snow. NHL darling, Sidney Crosby scored the shootout winner for the Penguins. It was a dream outcome for the NHL.
In the years since, the NHL has fallen into a bit of a trap. The league has focused almost all of their Winter Classic attention onto only the ‘big market’ Eastern Conference teams, and the Chicago Blackhawks.
Chicago leads all teams with three appearances. Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Buffalo, New York, Washington, Detroit, and Boston will have all appeared twice, including this year’s game. All seven of them are current Eastern Conference teams. Of the three teams to garner a single appearance, only the St. Louis Blues are a Western Conference team.
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This year’s contest will pit the Buffalo Sabres against the New York Rangers. At the Christmas break, the Rangers are the first Wild Card in the East. On the other hand, the Sabres have the worst record in the conference. To put it in perspective, if the same matchup was presented in the Western Conference, it would pit the Arizona Coyotes against the Dallas Stars. Just imagine THAT on New Year’s Day.
Next year’s rumored Winter Classic will not solve the problem either. It appears that the Boston Bruins will make their third appearance, while the Chicago Blackhawks will make their fourth. I believe that I have a way to solve the problem of a blatant Eastern Conference bias.
Other NHL Outdoor Games
Before I offer my Winter Classic solution, I want to point out that the NHL has presented other outdoor games featuring a wider range of teams, including the Colorado Avalanche.
The first NHL regular season game to be played outside was the Heritage Classic, on November 22, 2003. The contest featured the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers, at Commonwealth Stadium, in Alberta. Since then, all seven Canadian teams have played in outdoor games across the country from Vancouver to Ottawa.
The United States has also hosted Stadium Series games across the country. This was the type of game hosted by the Colorado Avalanche a few seasons ago when they played against Detroit. There was an exciting NHL game, and an incredibly enjoyable alumni game. There have also been games from New York to California, featuring many of the NHL’s US based teams.
The Stadium Series and Heritage Classic are the perfect vehicles for the NHL to market the teams they want to feature. Additionally, they also allow the league to give fan bases across North America the opportunity to host an outdoor game. Furthermore, alumni games give fan bases, new and old, an opportunity to be nostalgic for past glories.
NHL Winter Classic Solution
Meanwhile, the Winter Classic is the showcase event of the NHL’s regular season in the United States. As such, I feel it should be merit, rather than marketing, or ratings, based. Rather than put the same seven Eastern Conference teams in the game every year, along with the Blackhawks, I feel that the NHL Winter Classic should be a rematch of the previous season’s Stanley Cup Finals.
This season would feature the Pittsburgh Penguins hosting the Nashville Predators. Dare I say, that would be a better matchup than the one we have. The Preds are a prime example of a good team, with a passionate fan base, that has never played an outdoor game. They, and their fans deserve it. So do fans of the Sharks, Kings, and Lightning, who would have had recent Winter Classic appearances, if the game was scheduled as I have suggested.
In conclusion, if the NHL is going to continue expanding into non-traditional hockey markets, they need to feature some of those teams. If the Winter Classic was purely merit based, and a guaranteed Finals rematch, there would be good teams in every game. There would also be one team from each conference. It would be a good way to showcase the entire league, not just the Original Six, and teams from the north east US.