On Sunday, the No. 19 Wisconsin men’s hockey team played in a heavily-hyped outdoor game against the No. 2 Minnesota Golden Gophers in front of over 52,000 fans at Soldier Field in the Hockey City Classic.
Look at this event on paper and it seemed perfect.
Four ranked teams — No. 18 Wisconsin, No. 12 Notre Dame, No. 3 Miami (Ohio) and No. 2 Minnesota — in back-to-back games is sure to make any college hockey fan’s eyes open wide with delight.
Over the last few years, many hockey teams in both the NCAA and NHL have taken this approach — the NHL hosted an outdoor game last year between the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers at Citizens Bank Park — to help draw attention to a sport that seems destined to forever play little brother to basketball, football and baseball in the race for American sports fans’ hearts.
Unfortunately for sports fans who are drawn in by the spectacle and charm of an outdoor game — a return to the sport’s primitive origins when it was played outside on a frozen lake — primitive is the only word to describe a modern outdoor hockey game too.
A look at Sunday’s game provides the perfect example.
While the relatively warm 32-degree temperature and bright sun was welcomed by fans watching the game in the stands, with temperatures hovering right around freezing, maintaining the quality of the ice was a problem all afternoon.
Slush began to accumulate behind the goal and the ice played much slower than an indoor rink where the temperature can be controlled.
What was the result?
Sloppy play from all of the teams, particularly Minnesota — an exciting team that has been successful this year playing a fast, counter-attacking style — who was handicapped by the conditions in a much slower, much more simple game against Wisconsin.
Now imagine this is a fan’s first impression of the sport — not such a good one to have. If hockey wants to draw in more attention and expand its fan base, it will just have to come up with something else.
Outdoor hockey is awesome
Outdoor hockey is great in the sense that it’s a spectacle, so stop hatin’. Outdoor hockey games happen once or twice a year, and are therefore appreciated with the grandor of the game that you labeled as primitive. It’s a return to tradition and history of hockey that draws the amusement of fans from all across the nation.
The 52,000 fans who packed Soldier Field were there to enjoy a sight they can’t witness everywhere.
Only seven NHL regular season games have been played outdoors. The average attendance of the five NHL Winter Classics rise to more than 53,000. For reference, the Chicago Blackhawks host the most fans in the NHL, averaging little more than 21,000 spectators each game, less than half of these outdoor games. There seems to be little more that could be done to get hockey fans to get excited.
And so what if there is a little slush out on the ice. I wasn’t on hand but I’m willing to bet it made the game even more exciting for the fans that attended.
For those stirred up in the negative effects of slush, I’ll preach the word “perseverance,” an all too familiar term for hockey players, the men and women draped in bulky uniforms and chasing around a puck for hours, while their opponents feast on checking their off-balance counterparts into plexiglass.
All the gruff and tough listed above almost seem destined to be in battle outdoors, with the sun shining and temperatures flirting with freezing. Those conditions describe what many people call a “perfect day for football” throughout the fall. Instead, tweets poured in Sunday declaring it “a great day for hockey.” And it was.
The game was phenomenal. The pace of play may have dipped a tad, but the final score read 3-2 in a heated battle between rivals. Even the most amateur of hockey fans can get excited over that. Let’s not change this.