NHL's Winter Classic Has Its Critic

Paul Steinbach Headshot

More than 68,000 people witnessed it in person. Nearly 5 million people watched it on television. Dan Shaughnessy never wants to see it again.

Shaughnessy, a Boston Globe and Sports Illustrated columnist, has cooled on the idea of outdoor hockey after attending the latest NHL Winter Classic in unseasonably balmy Pittsburgh on New Year's Day. Shaughnessy admits to being all for previous Winter Classics staged in Buffalo, Boston and Chicago. "It just wasn't the same last Saturday night as I watched the Penguins and Capitals slushing around on soft, watery ice at night in the middle of Heinz Field," wrote Shaughnessy earlier this week at si.com. "The Caps beat the Penguins, 3-1, but this was not what the league had in mind."

You can only plan so far in advance for weather. And while outdoor ice can be maintained in 50-degree temperatures, there's no escaping rain. The NHL tried, pushing the game to primetime from its previously scheduled 1 p.m. start, but the league can't be too miserable about the public's growing interest in outdoor hockey. NBC's broadcast of the 2011 Winter Classic drew the largest TV audience for any NHL game in 36 years. According to the network, each of the four Classics ranks among the top five most-watched regular-season games during that time span.

That Shaughnessy is suddenly soft on the concept of "the outdoor hockey game" is surprising, considering that an announced crowd of 113,411 saw the University of Michigan hockey team host Michigan State outdoors in December. That number would set an NCAA record for attendance at any sporting event, but Guinness World Records has certified the ticket count for "The Big Chill at The Big House" at 85,451 - still good enough for the international ice hockey single-game attendance record. (The high temperature in Ann Arbor on game day was 42 degrees.) The University of Wisconsin has hosted two outdoor hockey games - in Green Bay, and more recently in Madison - and both saw sufficiently chilly weather and warm fan reception.

Perhaps the NHL should be more climate-conscious when staging future Classics (New York's Citi Field and Yankee Stadium are widely considered the leading candidates for 2012), but calling for the NHL "to come back inside to play" strikes this writer as unnecessarily cold.

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