I feel like a proud father this morning. You have to understand, that if you are a diehard fan of the NFL, NBA, or MLB, you may have an occasional scandal or crisis in your sport, but nothing like the NHL. The NHL is one big crisis. No matter how hard they try to grow their sport, they continuously shoot themselves in the foot and actually shrink their sport.
Hockey is a tough sell in this country. We all know it. We just don’t know how to change it. Or, I should say, those running the sport don’t know how to change it.
But, yesterday, they got it right. The outdoor game in Buffalo could not have gone better. NBC, Bob Costas, and a fair part of the US sports audience saw the snow and the spectacle that was Sabres-Penguins yesterday. Would it have been more perfect if it was a day that they had their own stage? Sure. But, at the time, they were competing with the Gator, Outback, Cotton, and Capital One Bowls, and it is more than possible that those games did not grab the attention of the majority of the audience, and those flipping to NBC, likely were locked in once they saw the show.
There were problems with the ice and problems with the wind. But, hockey tried to come up with an event that would be must-see-tv. For those that saw it, they will talk about it today with great reviews. For those who missed it, I think many will feel that they missed something cool.
As the Badger Bob Johnson used to say, “It’s a great day for Hockey”.
Let’s do it every year, boys.
Sidney Crosby proves to be a fabulous ambassador for hockey …
Sidney Crosby stood alone under the lights, under a darkening plum-coloured sky, and under the eyes of the boisterous - and suddenly uneasy - crowd of 71,217. The National Hockey League doesn't get many cinematic moments, or scripts that go exactly right.
This was one.
A few seconds later, Crosby finished a fine day for hockey with a pretty, perfectly controlled shootout winner. His wristshot slid under Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, giving the Pittsburgh Penguins a 2-1 shootout victory at Ralph Wilson Stadium in the NHL's second outdoor game.
It was as close to a perfect ending as this league gets, and as close to a perfect day.
"Me with the last shot - I think I did that a lot of times, when I was young," Crosby said in French, with a smile.
It was a gladiatorial conclusion to an imperfect game. The snow that fell through most of the afternoon made stickhandling difficult - Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff correctly noted that, on some passes, "you'd see a rooster tail (of snow) coming over the puck."
Both teams played relatively conservative, simple hockey, with a few Crosby-supplied
exceptions. And there were several delays to repair damaged ice, or to send out the Zambonis in mid-period.
But it was a barrel of fun, too, and the NHL could always use more of that.
"I took time to look around," Miller said. "Everybody seemed to be either standing up or dancing, or swaying and chanting - I love (that)."
Until the puck was dropped, this was as much a weather story as a sporting event. Compared to the bone-cracking cold of the Edmonton outdoor game in 2003 - it was just below freezing Tuesday in Buffalo compared to -30 C with the wind chill in Edmonton when the Oilers hosted the Montreal Canadiens at Commonwealth Stadium - the conditions were good. The lone worry was the snow, which increased and ebbed all afternoon. But it never came in enough volume to stop play. It just forced the Zamboni into a little extra work.
And that left a fine time to be had by all. After Zamboni breaks, or brief intermissions to work on the ice, fans in the stands would shout, "Game on!"
When one particularly problematic patch of ice had to repaired more than once, one fan bellowed, "It's just a pothole! Put a cone down and skate around it!" Fans in the final rows were pleased with their seats, and the crowd sang along with, among other ditties, Sweet Caroline. And almost nobody left early.
It was, at its heart, a festival of hockey. Before the game, outside the stadium, the tailgating spread out for miles - you could have mistaken it for a Buffalo Bills game, aside from the Sabres jersey and the occasional games of street hockey. From the stadium, the smoke from the burning barrels and barbecues spiralled lazily from hundreds of sources, as if a small city on the near horizon had been sacked and burned.
Inside, the game took centre stage, even if it wasn't quite pond hockey.
Scott Burnside warns us not to do this too much but unless a team plays full-time outside, I am not worried about once a year being too much …
The comments by some players after this game echoed the sentiments of players after the NHL's first regular-season foray into outdoor entertainment, the 2003 Heritage Classic at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton: Thank goodness no one got hurt.
As one NHL official told ESPN.com, by the third period, they were just happy to get it done. They had proven everything they wanted to prove and were happy to move on. The official also suggested that once every other year probably would be an appropriate schedule for such games in the future.
"It's kind of tough with all the delays, because it's not everyone who plays 25 or 30 minutes a game," said Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang, who scored one of the Pens' shootout goals. "Like, for a guy who plays on the fourth line, it's kind of tough."
Would he want to play in an outdoor game again?
"Yeah, for sure," he said.
"Ah, maybe a break."
Before the game, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the experiences in Orchard Park will be factored in before any decision on future efforts is made. But there will be significant pressure to repeat the event on an annual basis.
Sponsors loved the exposure the Winter Classic received. There were some 240 press credentials issued, putting the event on par with the Stanley Cup finals. The Buffalo News reported this week that the local convention and visitors bureau estimated $5 million in direct revenue from the event, so no wonder teams are beating a path to the NHL's door in efforts to land their own outdoor magic shows.
"Based on the response, on our ability to execute and the inquiries we're getting from other clubs for similar activities, this obviously is something we're going to look at doing again," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a postgame statement.
There are persistent rumors the Montreal Canadiens will host an outdoor game next season as part of their centennial celebrations, although no commitments have been made.
But every time the NHL decides to return to the great outdoors, it will court disaster in its pursuit of magic. Some will argue the risk is worth the reward, and on many fronts, the Winter Classic supported that thinking.
But taking time -- and that means waiting more than just one season -- will be crucial for learning from the failings of this experience. Had the weather scuttled Tuesday's game, the contingency plans alone give some insight into the minefield these games represent.
Had the game been deemed unplayable after 40 minutes, it would have been "official" with a winner declared, unless the game was tied. In that case, each team would have been given a point and there would have been a shootout, unless they couldn't do the shootout, in which case, the shootout would have been held Feb. 17 before the next regularly scheduled game between the two teams. If the game had been canceled before the end of the second period, it would have been played in its entirety the next night. If that didn't work, the league would have rescheduled the game for later in the season.
What a nightmare.
Beyond that, hosting a game like this every season (or, heaven forbid, two in one season) ensures the kind of magic that surrounded much of the Winter Classic soon would dissipate. "Oh, is it time for another outside game? Already? Ho hum."
Part of the buzz surrounding this game came from the fact it was three years removed from the NHL's initial foray into outdoor regular-season games.
Not everyone buys that, though.
Ruff was told there is a vein of cynicism that runs through some quarters of the hockey community regarding these kinds of games.
"I think it was good for the game," he said. "You know, it may not be the best hockey game because of the situation, because of the weather, because of the snow, but the atmosphere was incredible. It was incredible."
Then he paused.
"And to hell with the cynics."
Email on the topic of the Winter Classic:
1) Please tell me you watched this. The hockey was average but the atmosphere was incredible.
2) Please burn a segment on this. I hope the returns are good enough that it warrants a yearly appearance. What a great event.
Brendan J. McAllister
Bob, I hope you are seeing the buff pitt hockey game thats the way hockey should be played outside and in a snow storm!!!! Thats the way I played when I was a kid.
STAY BAD AND DONNIE DO TOO>
Bob, how awesome is outdoor hockey in Buffalo in the elements…that’s what will sell hockey to the masses that are the fringe fans. I’m loving this even though I’d like to see the players on pristine ice it’s very cool for the football lovers out here to see the toughest guys in sports play in tough conditions. It does slow the game down but that makes it easier to follow. By the way, I think NBC’s presentation of the game is excellent as well…too bad they don’t do more games, Costas…solid as always and the play by play and color guys in the cold and snow are equally as solid!!! I’ve watched more hockey today than football which is definitely a first during bowl season. Love the show, please spend a segment on this tomorrow because I’d love to know yours and Dan’s thoughts on the game.
I’m with you, it’d be great to see Sydney(sp) Crosby at least once a year at the AAC!!
Ryan P1 Anna
In case you missed it, here are the high-lights:
On to a few other items:
Look who the latest guy is to try to take food off my table! We welcome Michael Irvin into the radio arena …3 hours a day, brother…even in Rangers season. I wish you the best. I hope you are better at this then I would be playing WR for the Cowboys….
Michael Irvin will co-host a daily show on ESPN-FM (103.3) beginning Jan. 10.
Irvin will work the 11 a.m.-to-2 p.m. time slot with Kevin Kiley, who most recently co-hosted a talk show on the ESPN affiliate in Los Angeles.
The Irvin-Kiley radio show will be called The Playmakers, in deference to Irvin's Hall of Fame career as a wide receiver with the Cowboys.
Contracts were finalized on Monday, said ESPN 103.3 program director Tom Lee.
"We are always looking to upgrade our station, and we believe this is a significant way to do that," Lee said.
Scouts look at Eli …
Eli Manning, Giants
Our panel of experts wasn't impressed with Manning even before the quarterback's four-interception implosion against Minnesota in Week 12.
"I think he's got good skills," said the secondary coach, speaking before the Minnesota game, "but all the other stuff, the intangible stuff, I don't think he has it. He gets scared when you get after him in the pocket. All the things you hate a quarterback to have, he has. And he's not accurate."
Even Giants' general manager Jerry Reese admitted that Manning, 26, had become "skittish" in recent weeks.
"He missed throws in our game," one of the pro scouts said. "There were throws you need to make if you are a front-line guy. He left yards on the field against us."
This weekend, we have the start of two great institutions: 1) The NFL Playoffs, and 2)
the debut of the final season of the Wire on HBO …
The HBO series, which begins it fifth season Jan. 6 (and will be available on the network's On Demand channel starting Monday), tends to inspire this kind of manic devotion. What the show lacks in numbers -- last season averaged 1.6 million viewers per episode premiere, HBO says, compared with 8.9 million for "The Sopranos" at its height or, say, 30.7 million viewers for an "American Idol" season finale -- it makes up for in cachet. A favorite among the hip-hop world and the intelligentsia, "The Wire" doesn't have casual fans -- those who watch, watch obsessively.
In the post-"Sopranos" world, "The Wire" is more central to HBO's strategy than in years past. The network's looking to the series to retain subscribers at a time when many in the industry say it's on shaky ground. In many ways "The Wire" is HBO's closest cousin to "The Sopranos" -- they're both gritty dramas and they're loved by critics. (Slate's Jacob Weisberg has called "The Wire" "the best TV ever broadcast in America.") It doesn't hurt that the season will be premiering in early January, against other lineups weakened by the writers' strike -- much of what's being scheduled is reality television and reruns. "The stakes are higher this time," says Brad Adgate, a media analyst with ad-buying agency Horizon Media. "The golden age of HBO is over, back when they had 'Sex and the City,' 'Six Feet Under' and 'The Sopranos.' "
Q & A with Michael Chiklis …
Finally, My High School Hoops Christmas Gift is on Youtube:
Cowboys – Redskins fight from Sunday – between two Cowboys fans?