Monday, January 27, 2014

On Outdoor Games


There can be no doubt that the actual events in Michigan, California, and New York so far have been successful for the NHL so far. Just looking at the attendance alone - some 175,000-odd people have attended the three games? At their current pace, it would take Phoenix more than 13 games to prod 175,000 people through the turnstiles. The optics have been both strong and varied - from the seeing-the-Colosseum-for-the-first-time scale of Michigan Stadium, to 60s and palm trees and glitterati in LA, to that little bit of magic (good or bad, depending on your perspective) that Yankee Stadium just has in New York. The league must be pleased with the outcome, so far. But I wonder how much the league is holding its collective breath, too?

The cracks are there. was advertising discounts on tickets for LA a couple weeks ago. Promos for Wednesday's game at Yankee Stadium make sure to remind us that tickets are still available. You had some pointed griping about the conditions in NY. The hinky warm-up delay thing. The Ducks' uniforms.

And, the biggest crack, although few admit it (which makes you wonder just how many hockey fans are going to these games, versus those just wanting to participate in the happening - which is completely cool), is that the games have suffered. No honest to goodness hockey fan is going to sit there and tell me these games look like any other NHL game. It's somewhere between a preseason game and the All-Star game in terms of intensity and focus. And how can you blame the players? They walk out into that atmosphere, how can you not be in awe?

I've been to an outdoor game. This year, in Rochester. It was simultaneously one of the most fun hockey experiences I've ever had and the worst hockey game I've ever seen.

The basic problem is that a regulation hockey rink is just not set up to be viewed from as far away as places like baseball stadia and The Big House mandate it be viewed from. Watching a baseball game is simple. Football, too. With all due respect, watching a trapped baserunner try to juke around a shortstop trying to tag him out is just not the same as watching a hockey forward trying to deke a guy at the blueline. You need to see the plays develop in hockey, which is also something in football, I suppose, and I wonder if Michigan Stadium hasn't been the best of the three venues so far, for that reason alone - the stands are much more on top of the field than the baseball stadia. The game I attended was at a minor league baseball park - small in other words (and the seats were on an even more gentle grade than at some of the big MLB parks - to the point that the second deck were the "expensive" seats for the hockey game) - and I still couldn't see a thing. The rink was set up length-wise across the infield from first-to-third with the benches on the second base/outfield side. We were sitting behind home plate, so at center ice, but, because of the foul territory behind the dish, we were as far from the ice as you could be. The near boards meant you couldn't see players from the waist-down no matter what. And, if the play was on the other side of the rink, the line of sight was such that you could really only see shoulders-up. And forget about seeing the puck - ever. Again, that was a small ballpark, so maybe the viewing has been better at the NHL games so far. But, I'm guessing it hasn't been ideal. Or even very good. So, as far as Going To A Hockey Game, these outdoor games, writ as large as they can be, are no good.

But, as I said, the game I saw was also one of the most fun hockey experiences I've had. It was just a party, man. It was cold, for one. And people were taking their pre-gaming seriously. And their mid-gaming. And, I would assume, their post-gaming, too. But, instead of being sloppy, rude, belligerent drunks, everyone was just...happy. There was a wonderful feeling of shared suffering and a unique, cool, novel experience. People were dancing in the seats, high-fiving little kids they didn't know, just having a ball. And it rubbed off. My kids participated in the wave for the first time. It was really...special.

So, maybe that's the draw. Introduce a bunch of new people to the game of hockey in an atmosphere that is more hospitable than just dropping them into the upper deck at Wells Fargo Center in Philly wearing a Rangers jersey would be. And, if so, then that's enough. Hockey is worth that to me.

But, having been to an outdoor game, I do not feel the need to go to another one, ever again. And I certainly wouldn't pay NHL dollars to go to one. The optics on TV are good for a minute, but in the same way that I like to see about two minutes of the red carpet at the Oscars - it's a spectacle. I'm not rearranging my schedule to watch the Isles and Rags on Wednesday, in other words.

The NHL is going to do what's good for the NHL - that's their prerogative. And the fact of the matter is that these outdoor games do not interrupt my being a fan of the NHL. It's just a thing.

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