Outdoor hockey – including NHL Winter Classic – becoming all the craze. Can it last?

(Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

BY MICHAEL TRAIKOS

They once played an NHL exhibition game in the parking lot at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, in what was described as shorts and T-shirt weather. The temperature on that sunny September day in 1991 was a balmy 85 degrees Fahrenheit, making the game clock a countdown for both the periods and the quickly melting ice.

Wayne Gretzky scored as the Los Angeles Kings defeated the New York Rangers 5-2. But all that anyone remembers were the insects drowning in the slush.

“If you looked directly down you would see hundreds of bugs,” Jim Fox, who was doing the color commentary, told LAKings.com. “The bugs had fallen and either died or drowned from the water that was being put on the ice. So that was the weirdest part of that game.”

Since then, outdoor games have been staged in soccer stadiums and baseball diamonds, in places that make climatic sense (Alaska) and others that do not (Mexico). The 2009 Kontinental League All-Star game took place in front of Lenin’s final resting place at the Red Square in Moscow, while in 2001 Michigan State and the University of Michigan played a ‘Cold War’ game in front of 74,544 fans at Spartan Stadium.

Fittingly, it ended in a 3-3 tie.

What started out as a gimmick in a parking lot in Las Vegas has grown into a big business. There will be six outdoor games played in the NHL this season: the Leafs and Red Wings will play Jan. 1 at Michigan Stadium, the Kings and Ducks will play Jan. 25 at Dodger Stadium, the Rangers will play the Devils Jan. 26 and the Islanders Jan. 29 at Yankee Stadium, the Blackhawks and Penguins will play at Soldier Field March 1 and the Canucks and Senators will play at BC Place on March 2.

“All the guys that get to participate in these games get excited because it’s where the sport started,” said Leafs defenseman Cody Franson, who participated in an outdoor game while playing in Sweden last year. “In some ways, it pays respect to them.”

The Winter Classic, which started as the Heritage Classic, has become the NHL’s Super Bowl – a big-ticket event attracting an audience of puckheads and casual sports fans through unique jersey sales and 24/7 documentaries. There’s an emotional attachment to playing in weather so cold it turns your toes numb and allows you to see your breath. It’s a gimmick, sure, but it’s one that has so far proven to be successful from a financial and popular level.

That was NHL chief operating officer John Collins’ vision in 2007. At the time, NBC Sports had lost the rights to the Gator Bowl and was looking for something to fill the sporting void on New Year’s Day. By taking hockey out of the indoor rinks and putting it back in the cold, he made it cool again.

And others have followed. Amateur tournaments are springing up from New Brunswick to New Hampshire and anywhere else where the temperature gets cold enough to freeze a body of water. There are already 225 teams registered for this year’s Pond Hockey Classic in Vermont, with many more expected at the New England and Montana tournaments.

“Outdoor hockey is re-emerging on the scene,” said Scott Crowder, who is the “commish” of the Pond Hockey Classic and also the son of former NHLer Bruce Crowder.  “They’re enjoying the game like they did as kids. Collectively, the hockey community has embraced the outdoor game again.

Two years ago, Fenway Park in Boston held seven NCAA games in eight days as part of the Frozen Fenway. Last year, the short-lived Williamsport Outlaws of the Federal Hockey League attempted to play the entire season outdoors at a ballpark in Pennsylvania while waiting for a rink to be built. But the team ceased operations before the season ended, an example of a gimmick outstaying its welcome, or what happens when fans are forced to sit in the cold too often.

That is the fear with the NHL’s expanding outdoor hockey schedule. What started out as a promotional ploy is now a significant part of the NHL schedule. In other words: Have ice? Will travel. But for how long?