Why is the NHL’s premier “must see” event barely on most people’s radar this year? For many reasons but “boring” and “over it” seem to sum it up nicely. When they first played this game in the snow globe that is Buffalo, it was new and not exactly the hyped up version we have come to recognize. It was two teams who agreed to play a regular season game outdoors, evoking the memory of pond hockey that they played as kids. Each Winter Classic since has had to have a hook to go along with it, but Buffalo might have had the best hook of them all: it was new and they get winter weather from October onward. Since then the Classic has become a bit of a circus with multiple games for alumni, AHL teams, college and even major junior teams before even getting into the marketing and events surrounding them. One Winter Classic even forced fans to buy tickets to the AHL game (cough Philadelphia) to get the tickets to the main event.
Last year Detroit destroyed records when they had a whopping 105, 491 people in attendance, frozen and unable to see the puck. They also crushed previous years’ viewing records with 8.2 million tuning it, but they also had 2 years of buildup thanks to the pesky lockout that cancelled the game from happening in 2013. The Classic has spawned the “stadium series” so we can have more outdoor games in markets that might not be able to reach Detroit like levels. Since someone above was smiling at the notion, they granted us a game in Southern California. Because nothing says winter more than palm trees and board shorts. Of course we have gotten schooled in science since they managed to make ice in 60 degree weather and have special tarps to cover the ice during the sunny days from melting all their hard work. There was a game played and someone won it, but the highlight of this circus was Commissioner Gary Bettman hanging out with KISS. It was so LA.
But the best gift that the Winter Classic has given us was HBO’s 24/7 series. The two featured teams would grant HBO unprecedented access to their lives both on and off the ice. Live Schreiber would narrate us on a journey that made Ilya Bryzgalov appointment TV and showed us that Randy Caryle can’t make toast (or figure out what to do with his team). We saw the Rangers have the best ugly Christmas sweater party and that John Tortorella really does a have soft side, while Sidney Crosby is just as superstitious as we imagined. We still wonder about the inside jokes that we still weren’t privy too; Pascal Dupuis saying “#$!@ you Geno” is a classic example; and cringe when we flashback to Alex Ovechkin’s back tattoo in one of the first scenes ever. Mike Babcock’s secret weapon might be a mule (Johan Frazen) while Dan Bylsma and Ray Shero had a number system for evaluating their call ups. But outside of Crosby being superstitious, and Bryz having had a few funny moments in interviews previously, did we know any of this? Did we know that we had a space cadet in Bryz before this series? Finding out this stuff is what made us watch the next series.
Last year was easily the worst of the seasons but let’s be honest, the Maple Leafs were already in a downward spiral and many people weren’t sure Babcock wanted to open his room up like this. The team camaraderie from the seasons previous was missing. Remember that painful conversation at the steakhouse with some Wings players? It was hard to watch. Was it because the Leafs were just bad and the Wings were ravaged with injuries or was it because they had seen what had been shown in past seasons and didn’t want to open up like that? We may never know. But we do know that HBO had enough and said no 24/7 this year.
I can’t say I was shocked though. It has long been said Joel Quenneville was decidedly not into the idea of cameras around the Capitals were already featured once (and really you can’t beat Bruce Boudreau with the sauce on his face). Plus these two teams have no gimmick or real rivalry. In the original series, HBO and the NHL had a coup in that matchup: Sid versus Ovie. At this point Crosby already had a Stanley Cup ring and Olympic Gold, but they were considered to be the two best players in the game, and question was could Ovie reach these pinnacles. Now you have Ovie versus Jonathan Towes and Patrick Kane. Between them there are 4 Stanley Cup rings, 3 Olympic medals and none of this hardware lives in the DC area. The point is what is the match up here? These teams aren’t original six, they don’t have a history of rivalry and the Caps went from the top of the now defunct Southeast Division to middle of the pack (at best) in the Metropolitan. There’s one line that goes through my head and its Ted Leonsis saying “"We have to win the Stanley Cup. Pittsburgh has already won theirs”. If the Penguins having won 3 cups was making him spin, what do the 5 that Blackhawks have do to him? I expect nothing less than total tail spin from him. His money can buy him the rights to host the Winter Classic, but it can’t buy him a Stanley Cup. (side note: Both Chicago and Pittsburgh got to host this circus before Ted got his. I’m sure it wasn’t on purpose but I’m also sure it rubs him the wrong way).
The thing is, even if this still was must watch tv (and at this point for me its not), many of us can’t watch it simply because we have never heard of EPIX, the channel which is now airing a knockoff of 24/7 simply titled, “The Road to the Winter Classic” which was basically the tagline HBO used. In the 800 plus channels that are mainly never viewed, I don’t get EPIX. I also have Comcast, who only happens to be the largest cable provider in the country, but they don’t carry it. EPIX for their part has stated that you can sign up for a free trial to watch the show online, which is nice, but it’s just not the same. Since I don’t have an allegiance towards either of teams, it’s not must watch tv for me so I’ll eventually find a way to view the episodes but for now I’ll focus on Tiny House Hunters (no joke- this is must watch to me currently).
The Winter Classic is no longer new. The novelty has worn off. We have seen the games in snow, and rain, and sunshine. The fact is the game is still worth only 2 points to the winner but its 2 points in the standings that could impact their season standings. There 30 teams in the league and while I’d admit the Winnipeg Jets versus the Edmonton Oilers would also be a yawner, the teams picked to play in the Winter Classic tend to be from the East and a handful have played more than once. (Side note: I think the Florida Panthers versus the New Jersey Devils would be fun, simply so we can decide once and for all if Roberto Luongo or Cory Schneider was the better goalie)
Many teams have begun to produce their own web series on the 24/7 model, but they are able to focus on their team and have full control over what everyone gets to see. The Winter Classic has lost its luster, but its still a moneymaker so the NHL will continue to host this event until it starts to lose money. There’s already rumors that next year will be back in Boston. Once again, recycling a team. Safe bet would be for a recycled opponent also.