With the 2016-2017 hockey season winding down, there isn’t much to look forward to in the summer. So, let’s jump ahead in time and talk about the outdoor games for the 2017-2018 season. This year, there are three outdoor games scheduled, a cutback from last year’s four games.
Let’s start with some history. In 2003, the NHL presented the NHL Heritage Classic; a single game played outside, similar to pond hockey. Then, in 2008 they introduced the Winter Classic, the only difference between this and the Heritage Classic being that the Winter Classic was played on New Year’s Day. Last but not least, they introduced the Stadium Series in 2014. This would be a handful of games played outdoor each season along with the Winter Classic and Heritage Classic. Each year, more and more fans have attended these games. And why wouldn’t they? It’s the experience of a lifetime.
Now, the problem with these games: most, if not all of these games, have been played in huge markets. Out of the 21 outdoor games played, 14 of them have featured at least one Original Six team. The Chicago Blackhawks have played in five outdoor games, the New York Rangers have played in three (with another on the way next season), along with the Montreal Canadiens. While not an Original Six team, but a team with a huge fanbase and market, the Pittsburgh Penguins have played in four outdoor games.
Take the Heritage Classic between the Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets, for example. The total attendance was 33,240 fans. This might look same when compared to other attendance numbers, but Investors Group Field – where the game had taken place – only has a maximum of 33,500 seats. That leaves only 260 free seats. But, when looking at and comparing the attendance of The Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings (105,491 due to it taking place at Michigan Stadium) to that of the former, the Heritage Classic looks like a failure.
Now, look at the Winter Classic game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Buffalo Sabres. This is a prime example of catering to a smaller market and having it work out. The game was played at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, New York; which means that the Sabres were the home team and not the Penguins. The total attendance for the game was 71,217 fans while the total capacity of the stadium is 71,608. Which means there were only 391 seats left empty for an outdoor game in the middle of winter in upstate New York. Clearly, the turnout for both teams was high enough that it almost filled the entire stadium.
Overall, outdoor games can be beneficial to markets that would normally go overlooked by the NHL. There’s an old saying that goes “if you built it, they will come.” The NHL could definitely listen to that and expand their reach into cities that haven’t had the same attention as the bigger teams.