Thumbs Down To Penguins vs. Capitals Winter Classic
Sid! Your helmet and jersey are on backwards, you silly guy! Eh silly? Quit bein' so silly! Photo: Harry How/Getty Images
It looks as though the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins will meet on New Years Day 2011 for the fourth annual NHL Winter Classic.
By including the Penguins in the event once again, the NHL is handling Crosby and the Penguins the way a head coach handles his shootout lineup under international rules — once three different shooters have had their turn, it’s time to go back with your trusted specialist.
New Year’s Day of 2008 saw the Penguins battle the Sabres in the most memorable of all three Winter Classics to date. Despite the intermittent snow shoveling, the atmosphere and chippy play resulting from the weather did nothing but heighten the intrigue of the event. And surely you all remember, the Pens won that game in a shootout thanks to Sidney Crosby. Without question, the name most associated with the “Ice Bowl” is Crosby’s, and now, the NHL is looking to include Crosby in the game for a second time in four years. This is Crosby overkill.
The NHL is hesitant to branch away from Crosby, Ovechkin, or any other known NBC commodity as part of the Winter Classic because they’ve learned to build hype around the “Superstar Factor”. Patrick Kane and the Chicago Blackhawks were featured in 2009’s game only after both were well-established draws to American fans. Similarly, Boston and Philadelphia are “can’t miss” Northeastern hockey markets — there was little risk in naming the Bruins and Flyers as outdoor combatants. After three years of establishing the New Year’s Day showdown, it’s time for the National Hockey League to use the power of the Winter Classic to its full potential.
What does the Winter Classic do better than any NHL event? It brings non-hockey fans to their televisions, curious to catch a glimpse of the spectacle, while getting a taste of NHL hockey.
Holding the game in Colorado, Minnesota, or another suitable American locale would create a local buzz while shifting the entire local sporting focus to the NHL. No one needs to be reminded of the Penguins or Capitals. Those in charge of scheduling the game are focused on the immediacy of TV ratings and little on growth potential and exposure in markets that haven’t yet become colossal.
Pittsburgh vs. Washington on outdoor ice ought to be one hell of a game, but it’s not without risks. Just as it was in the Olympics, this game will be hyped around its two superstars. But with the intensity of the game hinging on the presence of the game’s most recognizable names, the possibility of a marketing disaster grows: What if one of the headliners is injured? How does NBC sell the game then? Malkin vs. Ovechkin? Semin vs. Crosby?
Considering the hype that follows Alexander Ovechkin everywhere and the spark he brings to the rink, he certainly should be entitled to an appearance at the Winter Classic. Ovechkin’s star status alone is enough to carry this event. If the powers that be were to insert an opponent from a lesser hockey market, that market would reap the benefits of riding shotgun with Ovie. And if the lesser-market team were to upset the Caps, we’d have the equivalent of a nationally televised Goliath slaying. There’s your storyline, there’s your intrigue.
NBC broadcasts a Sunday afternoon game every week after the new year, most of which involve the Penguins, Capitals, Blackhawks, Rangers, Red Wings, Flyers or Bruins. These matchups have already begun to grow stale, as the same handful of teams are continually pushed. Unfortunately, the NHL is prepared to take the safe route by once again pushing familiarity.
With the Penguins set to compete on outdoor ice once again, the intrigue is less; we’ve already seen Sidney Crosby with snow on his visor. The Pittsburgh presence will be far too reminiscent of January 1st, 2008. We may as well call it the “Winter Classic Classic”.