Commentary: Regionalized Outdoor Games Miss Exposure Opportunities

You are allowed to change your mind in life. That’s the beauty of experience — it allows you to reflect on your views and alter your original thought no matter how emphatic your opinion was.

The outdoor game in Madison seems to have gone off well. The game was competitive and the reel feel temperature was pretty low, but all seemed to come out OK. However, the best thing I can still say about outdoor college hockey games is that they haven’t killed anyone yet.

Out here in the east, the reaction to the Camp Randall Hockey Classic was unique. “They are playing another outdoor game?” one fan asked me while at Yale Saturday afternoon. “I thought the outdoor game was played at Fenway.”

Interesting reaction. Fenway. No teams, just venue. The venue was a huge sell. BU and BC could play on the moon and get a rating but it was Fenway, a name that attracts ears and eyes to it.

Well, yes, there was a game at Fenway. There was as second one this past Saturday and the impression I got this weekend was that it was the best kept secret east of the CCHA.

Red Berenson looked stately and Mike Eaves distinguished in their attire behind the bench. Two great coaches at the helm of two great programs. The teams played hard, they had fun, and the game was good.

Over 55,000 showed up, and they seemed to have fun.

I’ve taken it all in. I asked questions about the event to those who were there, even my fiancee, Shireen Saski, who was part of the Big Ten Network broadcast team. It seemed like a good time was had by all.

Now I’ll derail this parade by sticking to my original statement that college hockey just doesn’t need these outdoor games. Let’s be honest, these games and being a part of them is more about the haves having more. Not that I’m a socialist — far from it — but setting corporate ego aside, explain to me why we are doing this again.

Do we need Michigan and Michigan State at the Big House next year? Do we need RPI and Union doing this? Are we bored with regular games at their regular sites? Do we not think that the Kohl Center is a great enough venue that we have to take a game out of there? I’d say the same for Yost Arena. Give me a choice between hockey at Yost or hockey at The Big House and I’m taking Yost; it’s not even a question.

There were a few speed bumps along the way. A couple of things have surfaced when questions were asked.

Problem one, you can not have two outdoor games back to back on a day when it was about 15 degrees. People don’t want to sit through back-to-back games in that weather. The ice was an issue. Air temp for ice needs to be warmer than the temperature was that day. I was told the perfect temp is about 50 degrees for outdoor events or the ice gets brittle and begins to chip. Michigan complained about bad ice and even asked that the third period be divided into two 10-minute halves with teams switching sides midway through because of bad ice in the crease.

UW held a public skate the night before the games, the first game chewed the ice up a bit and by the time the main event started you had a bad surface. Toss in that the logos were bubbling up to the surface because they were not put in deep enough for the outdoor temps and you had some issues.

I’ve played and coached in my share of “outdoor” games. Played a few in midget at teams that had outdoor rinks and played all their games there. I actually played a game in college in a rink that had a roof but no sides. Fun was never part of the memory. It was cold; we were miserable. I think men’s league games outdoors are great, but they aren’t done to attract attention.

Now you say, “Dave, if we attract attention by doing these games outdoors then college hockey wins.”

I’ll buy that, but the interest in the Camp Randall game in the Northeast was virtually non-existent. College hockey is a regional love affair. BU and BC fans love BU and BC; they don’t have an interest in Wisconsin and Michigan. Conversely, the WCHA and CCHA fans don’t pay attention to much of what happens in the east despite back-to-back national champs from Hockey East. It is the nature of the beast. Can we change that?

That being said, the Big Chill game will be a big deal in Michigan, but will it be a big deal across college hockey? I’m thinking not. Take MSU out, put BU or BC in that game and see how much more interest it generates big picture. No disrespect to MSU here, but what we love about the regionals is that you see teams you never see play each other. Harvard-Cornell is great; North Dakota at Cornell two weeks ago was unreal and unique. Cornell players talked about those games as great learning experiences about who they are as a team and what they need to become to make a run. It took them out of their comfort zone and their fans loved it.

Will Michigan and Michigan State be good for hockey in Michigan? Absolutely.

Will it be good for college hockey? I doubt it, and that comes from someone who lives and breathes college hockey. Will it help Colgate get a new building built? Will it help Huntsville find a new home next season? Will it raise the profile of college hockey? No. Outside of the financial gains by the two institutions, it probably doesn’t do much for either school’s hockey program. Both are top notch, both have national title and NHL pedigrees, and both have the ability to recruit high end players.

College hockey has a lot of smart people running it and just got smarter with Paul Kelly jumping on board to help sell the game in the United States. Use Kelly’s NHL contacts to take this in a new direction and back indoors.

My feeling hasn’t changed. To me, Boston University and Cornell posting back-to-back 18,200-seat sellouts at New York’s Madison Square Garden (a city without a varsity D-I hockey program within 60 miles of it) is a hell of lot more unique than filling a football stadium. This is where college hockey should go. How about Notre Dame playing a game at Chicago’s United Center against BC? Wisconsin and Michigan probably works there also. Ohio State-Michigan at the new building in Pittsburgh? Philadelphia is a great hockey market, put a game in the Wachovia Center.

The Big Ten as a football conference has a presence in Los Angeles due to the Rose Bowl. Can you sell Ohio State as a team in a game in LA? Might be worth looking into. Army-Navy is a huge event in football. How about an Armed Forces Classic with Army and Air Force? Location almost wouldn’t matter; no one is turning their back on our armed forces. Maybe that’s the game in Philly in conjunction with Army-Navy.

Add the name “Classic” to it, announce it well in advance, make sure you go to an area with passionate hockey fans and a ton of youth hockey in the area and start selling the new phenomenon. Not everyone can sit at an outdoor game for four hours due to weather and a lot of people don’t want to, but everyone can enjoy it indoors. Create a fan fest to surround the event. Make sure you get NHL alumni from that city involved as well as alumni of both teams playing, especially ones that have NHL ties.

Make sure the game is on TV! BTN did a nice job Saturday. These games have to be on TV.

My feeling is that hockey fans are watching games in places their eyes are trained to watch them in. That doesn’t fit the outdoor mold. In this day and age of instant gratification and fickle viewing, people are looking for a reason to surrender to their society driven case of adult A.D.D. and turn the channel. Give their eyes what they are used to.

Also, do it on a Sunday after football season — don’t go up against anything you don’t have to. Michigan and Wisconsin went up against Super Bowl weekend on a Saturday when every college hockey fan was en route to watch their local team play and at a time when a lot of NHL games were close to starting. I love watching Shireen on TV and am a big fan of both Wisconsin and Michigan hockey. Saturday, I was at Yale at 4 p.m. watching it play Harvard (which might have been the most exciting game of the day — check the box score) prior to broadcasting the game at Quinnipiac that night at 8 on the CBS College Sports Network.

As stated before, the NHL Winter Classic works because it is the NHL, because you are taking marquee stars, well-known teams, and combining them with some historic venues. You are also doing it on Jan. 1, a day the NHL now owns using over-the-air TV (NBC) as its vehicle to sell the game to an audience that does not have much of a challenge from college football. It has the chance to capture the TV audience.

If college hockey wants to create “classic” games, do them inside, do them in creative out-of-the-box markets like Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, San Jose, New York, maybe even LA. Minneapolis, Denver, Boston and Detroit have proven college hockey can sell in an NHL market. Bring it to NHL markets that don’t have college hockey.

Let’s think ahead to the next idea. Outdoor games hopefully become what the Nordiques were to Quebec. We liked them, they left, we got over it and realized they were better off with a different look and a new identity.


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