Opinion: How to Fix Lack of Buzz for Outdoor Games in NHL

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The Chicago Blackhawks will take on the Washington Capitals on Thursday afternoon in the annual Winter Classic game, but unlike in past years when they’ve taken the ice at Wrigley Field and Soldier Field, it feels as though there is a decided lack of buzz about the game.

There are numerous reasons that this game isn’t getting the attention that many of the other outdoor contests have. For starters, it simply isn’t a new feeling for Hawks fans. There is an element of “been there, done that” almost certainly in play here, and it’s only made worse by the fact that the Hawks were last participating in an outdoor game less than a year ago when they beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in their Stadium Series tilt on the lakefront.

Another contributing factor is the fact that the two teams don’t share much history. Sure, the Penguins and the Blackhawks aren’t exactly long-time rivals, but at least there was the allure of two of the biggest stars in the league facing off, as Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby met for the first time, but there was also an interesting dynamic in play as some old-school fans expressed their loathing of Pittsburgh for the four-game sweep of the Blackhawks in the 1992 Stanley Cup Final.

Despite the presence of an elite-level talent like Alex Ovechkin on the other side of the ice, this year’s game simply doesn’t have the star power that the March 2014 game did.

The question for the NHL then is this: how can they ensure that these outdoor games, which have been a cash cow and have been among the most demanded tickets on the calendar for teams, stay fresh despite going into their eighth year of use?

For starters, they need to begin getting more teams involved. The Blackhawks have played in three outdoor games. Thursday’s game will be the second one for the Capitals. The Pittsburgh Penguins have played in three, as have the New York Rangers. Heck, even the Los Angeles Kings will be playing in their second outdoor game in February when they take on the San Jose Sharks.

These teams generate revenue and TV ratings to be sure, but there is something to be said about variety possibly generating new excitement in the games. Giving games to teams like Minnesota (who wouldn’t want to see a game between the Wild and the Dallas Stars? The alumni game alone would be worth it), Colorado (an alumni game reuniting the 1996 Avalanche and Red Wings would be epic), and St. Louis would be a smart move on the part of the NHL.

The NHL could also go for a more fan-inclusive route and have hockey aficionados vote on which team should get to host a game. Just picture this scenario: a fan logs onto NHL.com and gets to vote between four locales for a game. The league could set up a bracket system, with the winner getting named the host of a Stadium Series game, or even the Winter Classic itself, depending on how ambitious the league wanted to be.

Some diehard hockey fans are sick of outdoor games, and the luster is permanently lost on them. That is a perfectly understandable reaction, but the league can take steps to try to win those fans back while still appealing to casual fans who only tune in for these types of big events. Adding new teams to the mix and adding a fan voting component could spark more interest, and that’s something the league should do everything they can to accomplish.

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