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Screen Shots: Expanding the great outdoors

The Boston Bruins practice at Fenway Park Thursday before the New Year's Day Winter Classic. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

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The Boston Bruins practice at Fenway Park Thursday before the New Year's Day Winter Classic. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

BOSTON – Before a single second of the 2010 edition of the NHL Winter Classic was played – and in spite of the fact the league has failed to include arguably its top star (Alex Ovechkin) in the process – the now-annual outdoor game has become a runaway, unqualified success.

Most remaining doubters in the concept became believers after the 2009 Winter Classic at Chicago’s Wrigley Field between the Detroit Red Wings and hometown Hawks. Certainly, the league was fortunate to be riding the wave of the Blackhawks’ renaissance in that locale, but the passions aroused by the circumstantial pomp of a hockey game in a non-hockey setting have stayed stuck in the collective good graces of fans and sports media of all stripes.

And having participated in the media skate at legendary Fenway Park 48 hours prior to the New Year’s Day tilt between the Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers, I can tell you this year’s game very well could be the most thrilling yet. The atmosphere outside Fenway already was approaching electric on Thursday, with hundreds of fans (from both the Bruins and Flyers camps) milling outside the ballpark and embracing the spectacle.

Small wonder that many hockey observers are speculating the NHL wants to expand the outdoor game to two per season – and situate the game in even more exotic destinations. But where else could they go with it? How’s about some of these blue-sky ideas:

1. Europe.
The notion of bringing an outdoor game across the Atlantic Ocean was more popular among some Bruins (goalie Tuukka Rask said he already had discussed the pros and cons with his agent and friends) than others (defenseman Andrew Ference preferred to exhaust all North American outdoor destinations before taking the WC overseas).

But if the league truly wants to extend its reach to outposts beyond their home continent, one of the easiest ways to do so would be to stage an outdoor game in Stockholm, Berlin, Prague or Moscow. European players would be almost as stoked as they are for major international tournaments – and that heightened sense of excitement is precisely what NHL brass should be aiming to cultivate, in as many places as possible.

2. The All-Star Game.
I alluded to this in a recent Proteau Type article in The Hockey News magazine, but it bears repeating: if the league’s mid-season All-Star Game has become stale, wouldn’t it become at least a bit fresher by shifting the festivities outside? That way, fans and corporate schmooze-ees might be too cold to focus on the contact-free game that usually passes for All-Star frivolity.

3. Alaska.
Hollywood has made a movie about an NHL team playing a game in the 49th state, so why not turn it into a memorable real-life adventure? The backdrop of snowbound mountains would be as majestic as it gets – and the less-than-forgiving environment might scare away a portion of the massive media flock who’ve turned virtually every interview scrum in Boston into an elbows-and-icy-glares mosh pit.

4. A Fan-Free, Remote Location.
Adopting this suggestion would take some real foresight on the league’s behalf – I’ll let you make your own joke here – but picture the made-for-TV moments that would ensue if you sent two teams of NHLers to a pond in Northern Minnesota or Ontario with nary a fan in sight.

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That’s right, just the players, officials, two nets, a puck and the evening sky. The simplicity of the scene would be unlike anything any sport ever has produced.

Granted, the financial logistics of a gate-free outdoor game would need to be addressed, but that’s what title sponsors can help out with. And if the NHL can afford to prop up the Phoenix Coyotes franchise for the next few months with little-to-no payback in sight, surely the 29 other team owners can be persuaded to invest some of their own capital into a concept that already has delivered a wealth of positive exposure for the sport.

VIDEO: THN Shootout - Winter Classic 2010 Preview
From Fenway Park in Boston, The Hockey News’ Adam Proteau is joined by the Sporting News’ Craig Custance to discuss the 2010 Winter Classic… The prospect of having two outdoor games next season… And the play of the Bruins and Flyers to this point. PRODUCER: Ted Cooper.

 

Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

 

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