A couple weeks ago, there was a report in a Pittsburgh newspaper that the 2011 Winter Classic would be a pairing of Washington and the Penguins, likely at Heinz Field, home of the Steelers. Nothing official has been announced.
One wonders how necessary that matchup is.
Don't get me wrong. Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin is - or at least should be - a major draw. The Winter Classic is a major draw.
Is Crosby v. Ovechkin outside going to be a major major draw that gets casual fans not watching college football bowl games, or are NBC and the NHL wasting a meeting between two of the game's top players?
Here's my thinking, and there's a few ways to go to argue for either side. My feeling is the outdoor game is going to draw big ratings regardless of who's playing. (OK, maybe a Columbus-Islanders game would be bad, even with the great Rick Nash playing.) Putting the Penguins and Capitals in the Winter Classic feels like putting all the NHL's eggs in one basket.
Because then what's the bigger draw - Crosby-Ovechkin, or the outdoors game?
The league could save a Washington-Pittsburgh game for Versus or a regular Sunday NBC broadcast during another non-January 1 day to draw ratings during a slow time during the season, not when it'd be overshadowed by other New Year's Day events.
Assuming the report is true and it will be Washington and Pittsburgh, it's obvious why. This year's game stunk to high hell. The NHL owes its fans an apology for not changing the teams involved once it became obvious neither the Flyers nor Bruins were all that good. (Yes yes, I know the logistics of that would've been nasty. So what. In partial defense of the league, the game should've been good. But even then, the league had better options. Like anything involving Washington.)
Ratings declined for the 2010 Winter Dud, which was so boring I'd changed the channel a number of times and missed one of the few goals. So as a result, what better way for the league to get ratings to spike than to pit two of its brightest stars?
It's hard to argue with that logic, but even if just the Capitals are in the game it would be an improvement. Why not send them to New York and play the Rangers? Or, if we want to stop the hate for the Canadian teams, off to Montreal? NBC's probably too xenophobic though to include a team from up north. USA, USA, baby.
Honestly, putting the Penguins and Capitals outside seems like a desperate ploy to grab ratings, and I'm not all that convinced it will draw significantly more viewers than other pairings could.
I wasn't overly impressed with the quality of play in two of the first three Winter Classics, this year's and the Buffalo-Pittsburgh game. What the latter had working in its favor was the newness of the event (apologies to the Heritage Classic), the sights with the snow falling during play and lastly, Crosby winning the game in a shootout.
Does anyone remember the constant interruptions as the ice needed repaired in Buffalo? Talk about interrupting the flow. As a fan, that's one reason I don't want the Penguins playing outside again. I just don't think it's quality hockey. Plus, do the feelings of other teams matter that Pittsburgh will have been in two of four outdoor games?
So it's possible the league figures the Penguins and Capitals - who played one of the most entertaining playoff series in recent memory in 2009 - will put forth a hell of a show that revives the excitement of the event.
I just think there's other good options than Pittsburgh. Ovechkin and the Capitals must be involved in the next game. There's no question of that.
What about the first East-West draw? So far, we've just had intraconference games. We'd probably have to let the Capitals host the game unless we want to make Detroit the first team to make a repeat appearance. NBC wouldn't let the Canucks host (plus it'd be a 10 a.m. local start time), we can't have an outdoor game in San Jose, Chicago just had one, and other teams have similar issues.
But those teams in Washington? Why not?
Minnesota would be a great host. There's even a new ballpark to show off too. It won't happen because the team lacks sizzle but I don't think that should matter. People would tune in to see Ovechkin and it would provide a chance for exposure for a team that doesn't get much.
The Winter Classic should be a venue to showcase other teams and locales. Crosby and Ovechkin would probably increase ratings, but one of the reasons this year's game struggled was the Philadelphia market preferred to watch other events. I don't see that being a problem in Minnesota.
If I had a vote, I'd suggest Washington at the Rangers, as so many others have, or Washington at Minnesota. But the league seems set on its dream matchup.
It's not a bad choice by any means. It'd just be nice if the league showed some variety and creativity instead of shoving certain names down the throats of casual fans.