KMOX – The NHL Winter Classic is back and this Monday the NHL will once again bring its premier showcase event to a national audience. When the outdoor game was conceived for New Years Day, the NHL scored gold. Sports fans not interested in watered down college bowl games had something else to watch. Using classic ballparks or football stadiums and the uniqueness of the Winter Classic have made it an event to watch for any sports fan. It’s a far better national showcase than an all-star game, and seems to have a broader reach than even the playoffs.
Now that the game is a big time success, it’s time for the broadcasters and producers of the event to make sure they do right by the game. I have two suggestions. One may seem small but it’s a pet peeve watching the first few winter classics. The other is a much larger issue that goes well beyond just the Winter Classic broadcast.
First the minor issue. We know the game is being played outdoors. We know there are challenges presented by weather and other factors that affect the playing surface. Please quit spending the entire game describing how the ice surface is not as good as it would be indoors. Quit describing how its slowing players down or making it more difficult to handle the puck. They players don’t seem to care and neither do fans watching. It’s supposed to take you back to the days of pond hockey, right? Isn’t that what everyone says? Let the imperfections be the charm and not a detractor. Despite spectacular efforts by the NHL crew, the elements will create issues and that’s expected. If need be, mention it one time then move on.
Now the bigger issue, and this predominantly deals with pre-game, intermissions, and post-game content. Only the NHL seems to take every chance it gets on a regular basis to highlight problems with the sport. Way too many intermissions or pre-game shows focus on suspensions or telling fans why the league poorly run or having former players criticize the way the game is played today. This needs to change. This must change. I am not saying ignore important news nor am I saying don’t talk about anything that could be negative. I am saying make the great aspects, the most accessible athletes in sports, the unreal athleticism this game requires, the good play more the focus. When you watch the MLB network, the NFL Network, pre-game, post-game, or halftime shows in the NFL or NBA, you see them break down the game without constant reminders of what is wrong with the game. It’s a shame, but I fully expect NBC on Monday to focus on the stars sidelined with concussions. I hope I’m wrong. I hope the focus is on Giroux, Briere, Callahan and Lundqvist. You don’t see NBC highlight the problems with horse racing during Kentucky Derby do you? No. You don’t see them focus on any corruptness with the International Olympic Committee do you? No. Why is it done in hockey?
I am still scratching my head on the decision to take an intermission during the first Winter Classic in Buffalo and have Bob Costas with Mike Milbury showing Slapshot scenes and discussing that movie rather than showcasing stars around the league. Several years ago a Stanley Cup Playoff game went into OT. Instead of the intermission focusing on unbelievable play that lead to OT, the fatigue of the players, or the physical and mental challenges of playing multiple OT’s in the playoffs, the intermission hosts ripped the refs for two calls that played no role in the outcome. While watching a game on NBC two seasons ago, I watched Mike Milbury and Pierre McGuire kill the NHL for trying to take cheap hits out of the game. They claimed the NHL was trying to eliminate the physical part of the game. An entire intermission on that rather than on the game they were broadcasting, and in the process they showed negative hits that don’t help sell the game. The entire intermission was spent essentially demonstrating why everyone should not like or watch hockey. I don’t care how much they believe it. It’s not compelling nor is it the time or place. Last year a Winter Classic intermission focused on rivalries without hockey examples. WHAT? I understand the broader audience argument, but what a missed opportunity to showcase the NHL more. Could you imagine the NFL using a playoff halftime to showcase Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe or Bird and Magic? It makes no sense. Hockey is a great sport. Show it. Let’s have Costas interview the greats of the game current or past. The fact that it’s Costas doing the interview adds the broader perspective while keeping the show about hockey!
When I watch games televised nationally, the prevailing negative tone during intermissions focusing on what is wrong or what needs to be changed is frustrating. More focus needs to be on the superior skill and strategy about hockey. Far more time needs to be spent on the strategies of the game. That’s what fans need. More programming is making it happen more, but not enough nationally. I know there are good talented people on camera and behind the scenes and I believe they care deeply about the product. But I still believe a philosophical change is needed.
Markets are growing. Advertisers are interested. It’s time to go to another level and quit acting like the audience has no idea about the sport of hockey. Quit assuming people can’t understand because they didn’t play the game. Quit thinking something other than the game itself is needed for a broader perspective. Start breaking it down like they do in the NFL and draw more people in. Spend more time discussing the players. Debate the great teams. Highlight hidden stars. Showcase the great coaches. Bridge the generational gap from eras of hockey. Here’s an amazing concept. Do whatever is necessary to continue to educate fans on the best asset the NHL has, its players. Entertain with why they should turn on the TV and watch more hockey. Make the broadcast about the game of hockey itself and not what needs to be fixed or what is wrong with it.
I’m looking very forward to watching the Winter Classic on Monday. I hope it’s a fun and entertaining game. The lead in with HBO’s 24/7 has once again been spectacular and I hope those charged with presenting the Winter Classic follow it up the right way. Let the game be the focus. It’s time.