If the NHL truly wants to build the game, it should satisfy every market and let all 31 teams get in on the outdoor game action.
Photo by Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Did you know there is an outdoor NHL game this weekend? There is! But it must be a secret because I haven't seen a commercial for it anywhere, and I watch more TV than Donald Trump. The Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens, two teams that aren't in playoff position today, will square off in Lansdowne Park, a place most of you didn't know existed until half a sentence ago.
Give the NHL some credit—NBCSN is actually airing the game. I can just imagine the confused looks at an NBCSN meeting when they learned they had to broadcast a game from Ottawa.
"Is that a Netflix series?"
"Yeah, it has Jason Bateman, I think."
"No, it's a city in Canada with an NHL team."
"Is it the capital?"
"No, that's Toronto."
"Who is Ottawa playing? Montreal?"
"Are we allowed to air a game between two Canadian teams?"
"I think so, but I'll get our legal department to look into it."
The Winter Classic and outdoor games in general aren't the ratings draws they once were. Stadiums will always be packed, but the Winter Classic seems to have gone away from the idea of being a national event that unites hockey fans from all over the continent and is instead a niche event for fans of those same six teams that play in the game.
I've done this before, but with Winter Classic ratings down three years in a row, I got to wondering—why doesn't the NHL just let every team play one outdoor game every year and satisfy every market? The year after the lockout when the NHL had six outdoor games killed the novelty, so why not go full oversaturation and play at least one every weekend for a couple months?
So here's my unrealistic blueprint for giving every team one outdoor game next season, assuming I can cancel the ones already scheduled. I considered other teams occupy some of these venues, but if there's some sort of furry convention taking place at a stadium on the date selected, the NHL is pushing them to a different day.
January 1, 2019
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Nashville Predators
Bristol Motor Speedway
The NHL prefers to have the first outdoor game be the Winter Classic, so I'm respecting that and packing everything between New Year's Day and the beginning of March. This matchup and location is my dream. Both teams will still be good and fun next season, and the 162,000-seat capacity will make for an incredible setting.
Obviously, Lightning-Predators isn't drawing 162,000 fans or maybe even half that. But maybe the setting gets NASCAR fans that normally wouldn't give a shit about hockey into the building. If the capacity is double the normal outdoor game, you don't have to charge the usual exorbitant outdoor ticket prices. If the NHL isn't full of shit about "growing the game," this is the perfect event for doing just that.
January 5, 2019
New York Islanders vs. New York Rangers
Logistically, I have no idea. If they could build a rink in Mystery, Alaska, for the Rangers, the NHL can do it Central Park for the Rangers. Make it a temporary structure. There are already rinks in Central Park, but maybe the NHL puts down a new one. There are a couple places it would work but I don't know how you could get 50,000 people in there to pay for admission.
I'm always hearing about how the setting matters so much to getting people to watch on TV, so this fits the bill. If Garth Brooks can pull a million people into Central Park, the NHL can figure out a way to play a hockey game.
January 6, 2019
Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Montreal Canadiens
Here's a "grow the game" game. You build it around Auston Matthews and Max Pacioretty, who are both of Mexican ancestry and pretty good at hockey. Make sure this game gets the NBC treatment. The NHL can't export its shitty preseason games and teams to foreign lands and expect that to attract fans. This is my favorite idea and I expect the NHL to think its bad and laugh about it in their offices.
This game would have to happen in early January, as the Club America soccer team calls Estadio Azteca home and starts its season in January.
January 12, 2019
Arizona Coyotes vs. Vegas Golden Knights
Las Vegas Strip
Some of these have to be night games and it gets plenty cold at night in Vegas. Where on the Strip? Man, why do you need all these details from me? There are parking lots everywhere. Use the spot where Basher uses the pinch in Ocean’s Eleven. Erect some stadium seating. Let people watch from the hotels.
January 13, 2019
Winnipeg Jets vs. Vancouver Canucks
I have no idea if Stanley Park can handle this, but I saw an aerial photo and that place has the room to do it. And we keep the game in Canada, because there's no need to subject America to Canucks hockey.
January 19, 2019
Edmonton Oilers vs. Calgary Flames
Look, they're all not going to be great. Alberta would eat this up. Enjoy the day and let the NHL cash all the checks.
January 20, 2019
Boston Bruins vs. Minnesota Wild
This was an NBCSN rivalry night game in 2014, so can you imagine having a rivalry as storied as this one in one of the more aesthetically pleasing baseball parks? A dream come true for fans on both sides that live and die with this rivalry. There should be a seven-week reality show where Brian Rolston decides which team he plays for in the alumni game.
January 26, 2019
Ottawa Senators vs. Buffalo Sabres
New Era Field
What's the opposite of growing the game? Don't air this on TV, even locally. If you're asking how this is possible, since the Bills could potentially be hosting the AFC Championship that weekend, to that I say: lol.
February 2, 2019
Anaheim Ducks vs. Los Angeles Kings
Rose Bowl Stadium
I wanted to work the Hollywood sign into the view but this stupid city has too many damn hills. So pack the Rose Bowl instead. Play it in George Clooney's backyard. They all can't be winners.
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February 9, 2019
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals
Here's where the NHL can trump the NFL, which only sends its worst games to England every year. Again, if you want to grow the game, this is what has to happen. Consider this penance for all the times Sidney Crosby skipped the All-Star Game. Go eat some bangers and mash for a few days and play in front of people that should have no trouble understanding offside.
February 9, 2019
San Jose Sharks vs. Dallas Stars
Do you realize how hot it gets in Dallas? Like, all year? It's never not swamp-ass weather. So we play this game at night and enter it with the understanding every seat may not be filled. I have zero business training but I firmly believe that if you want to attract new fans, you can't punish the markets that don't have 90,000 fans dying for an outdoor game; play the outdoor game in front of 40,000 now so that you can play in front of the 90,000 later. Sometimes I think "grow the game" is code for "only play it where you know fans already exist."
February 16, 2019
Detroit Red Wings vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Sort of unfair to the Blue Jackets, because this stadium won't be filled and it will feel like a home game for the Red Wings. Bring the Ohio State band out to dot the i in Foligno. Let John Tortorella fight Urban Meyer. Have fun.
February 17, 2019
Philadelphia Flyers vs. New Jersey Devils
I'm basically creating an environment for three-dozen fights in the stands and parking lot. This is the best rivalry nobody really knows about. Maybe it doesn't exist like it once did during the Stevens-Lindros days when both teams were good at the same time but this would be a sneaky-good, mean-spirited game where some fans would go to jail.
February 23, 2019
Carolina Hurricanes vs. Florida Panthers
Beijing National Stadium
I talked a big game about sending good teams overseas to attract fans, but the most recent live hockey China received were preseason games involving the Kings and Canucks with some ridiculous ticket prices. Hurricanes-Panthers will seem like a Canada-Sweden gold-medal game now. And if this goes wrong and only a few thousand people show up, the Hurricanes and Panthers will feel right at home.
February 24, 2019
St. Louis Blues vs. Colorado Avalanche
Yeah, boring matchup, boring teams, repeat stadium, but the final game is what will make this a very attractive idea to the NHL.
March 2, 2019
Chicago Blackhawks vs. Chicago Blackhawks
On The Roof Of Some Deep Dish Pizza Joint
Kane. Toews. Keith. Crawford. ON TWO SEPARATE TEAMS? OH MY! Blackhawks! Blackhawks! Next!