Unless you're a self-loathing miscreant who's desirous to see the death of the outdoor game and/or the NHL, chances are you're rooting for the Winter Classic to be a success on the ice, in the media and in the television ratings books.
It's the NHL's most important brand on television. It's our beauty pageant. Shoot, it got us four hours on HBO (plus countless repeats); and that's valuable real estate when you consider how many re-airings of "Avatar" they're foregoing for little 'ole hockey ...
The game will be held on Jan. 1, 2011, with faceoff at 1 p.m. ET. Possibly ...
In case you haven't heard, there are some slight weather concerns for this season's game, considering Pittsburgh might feel more like Late Autumn Classic weather than Winter come Saturday.
But that's just one concern for the NHL heading into its signature regular-season event. Here are five potential headaches for the 2011 NHL Winter Classic.
1. Warm Weather
The current Weather Channel forecast for Pittsburgh on Jan. 1, 2011 is 45 degrees Fahrenheit. AccuWeather forecasts Saturday's high as 53 degrees. Will well-above-freezing temperatures affect the conditions?
No, said NHL ice guru Dan Craig, as the league's mobile refrigeration system can make ice to 50 degrees and, potentially, into the 60s. But Craig noted that ice-making in those temps hasn't been tested by the NHL.
The first Winter Classic was a snow globe. The Wrigley Field edition was at 32 degrees at faceoff. Last season at Fenway, the temps started at 39 degrees. So the Heinz Field Classic could be the balmiest to date.
Will it hurt the ice? Not likely with that refrigeration system. But if those temps climb any higher, some of the typical aesthetics of the classic (steam, snow, fans in huddled masses) could go M.I.A. this season.
2. Wet Weather
Craig said before the Fenway Classic that rain wasn't an issue, via NHL.com:
"If rain falls, we'll be freezing it because that's how we make a sheet of ice. If you watch us, we make ice with mists. That's how I teach it -- make the water fall as if it's raining. Rain will freeze right away."
However, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said on Thursday that "our biggest threat is rain."
"If it starts raining at 40 or 45 degrees, then we have problems. That's the biggest challenge in these games," he said.
The problem: There's rain in the forecast for Friday and Saturday and Sunday. Craig told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that it's a situation the NHL is monitoring. Via the Trib:
Steady rain, however, can cause problems. It won't immediately freeze, and the accumulating water could flood the rink's surface, Craig said. After the water does freeze, it could create an uneven surface, possibly risking the players' safety, he said
AccuWeather is calling for three hours of rain and a 20 percent chance of thunderstorms Saturday. The forecast worsens Sunday, with 12 hours of rain in the forecast, according to AccuWeather.
"There are a lot of variables we have to balance to get where we want to be, and we are always keeping in mind players' safety," Craig said.
Rob Rossi of the Tribune-Review reported that the NHL has a "long window" on Saturday in which to play the game, so they'll wait out any conditions. If they persist, then they would attempt to play the game on Sunday, which presents an entirely new issue for the NHL and NBC: The final weekend of the NFL, in which the Steelers play at 1 p.m. ET in Cleveland and the Redskins play at 4:15 p.m. ET in a spoiler game vs. the Giants. (Not to mention Buffalo/Jets at 1 p.m. ET and Dallas/Philly at 4 p.m. ET)
If the game can't be played this weekend, it will be rescheduled at Consol Energy Center later in the season, according to Rossi.
Well, at least Calgary will have an outdoor game ...
Another headache with a cancelled/postponed game? Ticket refunds. There's no policy in place yet, but Puck Buddy Justin S. (aka hersheyfan29) makes this point:
I got to thinking about what would happen if they had to cancel the Winter Classic due to rain and the major fiasco that would ensue regarding ticket refunds. I think its safe to say that a large portion of the tickets sold for the game have been up for resale on places like Ebay and Craigslist. This creates several huge issues. First off is the fact that the NHL will be refunding the original purchaser of the ticket for obvious reasons. Second all of these people that purchased their tickets second hand at a high markup ($300-$3000) will no longer have a game to attend and will be out the money that they paid for the tickets. I see no way that these people who sold their tickets are just going to return the large sums of money that they made of with because the game was canceled. Not too sure that there's really much that the people who bought these tickets could do. Either way it could get ugly if they would have to cancel the game.
That, it could.
3. Bowl Games Could Dominate Local Ratings
Assuming the Winter Classic goes off without a hitch on Saturday, the football ratings challenge will come from the college ranks.
While the NHL has hung tough on New Year's Day, the game's organizers have quietly told us that there are legit concerns about the college matchups programmed opposite the Winter Classic this season, even with Sidney Crosby(notes) vs. Alex Ovechkin(notes) on the posters.
Problem No. 1: Penn State. The Nittany Lions play at 1 p.m. ET against the Florida Gators (a national draw) in the Outback Bowl. The Fenway Classic saw Penn State's local ratings in Philadelphia trounce the viewership for the Flyers.
Problem No. 2: Michigan State faces Alabama in the Capital One Bowl at 1 p.m. ET and Michigan plays Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl at 1:30 p.m. ET So bye-bye Michigan viewership.
Bottom line: The NHL has its niche on Jan. 1, but having three hugely popular teams from a couple of its most vital markets could damage the league in the ratings book.
4. Casual Fans Need a Venue
The first Classic had that new-car smell. Wrigley was Wrigley and, despite repeating the baseball theme to diminishing returns, Fenway was Fenway.
Is the Sidney/Ovie/HBO hype enough to overcome the fact that Heinz Field isn't the same sort of iconic "non-hockey" venue as the previous two games?
There may be good news for the NHL on this front: Here are the Google Trends searches for the last three Classics, including the ones for Heinz Field leading up to Dec. 27:
Perhaps the NFL being in-season plays a factor here, but the traffic is trending upward for the venue.
Question is: Will that translate into ratings?
5. Finally, What if the Game's Lousy By Comparison?
The Philadelphia Flyers' game vs. the Boston Bruins at Fenway was 57 minutes of tedious hockey forgotten in history by a thrilling conclusion. The Winter Classic isn't exactly known for its stellar game play, which is an issue when you have two of the most exciting teams and players facing off on this huge stage.
Face it: Anyone that's seen a Capitals/Penguins game in the last three years has been spoiled by drama, excitement and memorable moments. It's expected in this rivalry; but will it be found in the Classic?
The NHL and NBC are serving three audiences here: the die-hards, the casuals and the curious onlookers who may have been hooked in by everything from Ovie/Sid to HBO.
Will the game be enough to satisfy the die-hards? Will it be exciting enough for the casuals to keep the remote on the coffee table? Will the curious become the converted after witnessing the spectacle? Will they hang if the first period is a mess?
We expect Flyers/Bruins to be a slog; we expect something more from Penguins/Capitals, and hopefully they can provide it.
Assuming, of course, there's a game to be played.
- Heinz Field