Blues, Blackhawks and a call to end Winter Classic exclusivity

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ST. LOUIS – The only thing the Chicago Blackhawks do more than appear in NHL outdoor games is answer questions about appearing in outdoor games.

They answer questions about the ice conditions and the glare and the threat of inclement weather, and how that all might affect their routine or their game play. They answer questions about their new swag and novelty jerseys. They still talk about playing on the pond as kids, except they get many more questions about playing in stadia as adults, and whether that experience helps them in their latest outdoor game.

They answer questions about the differences between the Winter Classic and the Stadium Series. Because sometimes you run out of things to ask them.

“Just the date, really. It’s an outdoor game. It’s exciting. There’s no real difference. Just the title of the event I guess,” said center Jonathan Toews.

“I didn’t even know there were different names for them,” admitted defenseman Duncan Keith.

Then, after what’s inevitably been another loss for the Blackhawks in these outdoor games, they’ll answer postgame variations of these questions along with “what went wrong?” and other minutia. They’ll bite their tongues on the conditions of the ice, and pretend it doesn’t absolutely infuriate them that twice in the last two years they’ve lost four-point divisional games while someone like Nashville hasn’t had a single outdoor game appearance yet.

But they also talk about the honor of having these experiences, too.

“You’re playing outdoors in venues that you would never expect to participate in or play a hockey game at,” said winger Patrick Kane. “I remember the first thing I did in Chicago was go to Wrigley Field, throw out the first pitch and sing during the 7th Inning Stretch. I never thought I’d be playing a hockey game on that field.”

“We’re privileged to be part of them,” said Keith. “There’s a lot of players that haven’t had this experience. We’re fortunate and honored to be asked to have it.”

The 2017 Winter Classic was the Blackhawks’ fifth outdoor game, having played in three Winter Classics and two Stadium Series games, the most for any NHL team. Second to them are the Detroit Red Wings, who played in their fourth outdoor game in the Centennial Classic against the Toronto Maple Leafs, who they had already faced in the 2014 Winter Classic. The Pittsburgh Penguins will also be playing in their fourth outdoor game against the Philadelphia Flyers, who will be playing in their third.

There have been 23 teams that have played in NHL outdoor games. But the Stadium Series is on one side of the velvet rope while the Winter Classic sits in VIP: The St. Louis Blues became just the 11th team to play in the Winter Classic.

And let’s be real about the Winter Classic: It’s WrestleMania to the Stadium Series’ SummerSlam. It’s the Oscars to their Golden Globes. It’s still an honor to be asked to headline one, but clearly one event is more prestigious than the other.

“Having it around New Year’s is pretty special,” said Corey Crawford of the Classic.

It’s a shame, then, that more teams aren’t privileged to take part in the Winter Classic. I know, I know, there are mitigating factors: NBC wants the usual suspects who drive ratings, and the NHL is scared to death of trying something that results in the game being less than standing-room only, or selling merchandise that doesn’t move at the expected clip. That’s why we haven’t had a team founded after 1974 that’s played in one.

I get that.

But we’ve all come to realize that the Winter Classic, and really all the outdoor games, have slipped into the same mode as the NHL All-Star Game: It’s less about the eyes on TV screens around the country, and more about the experience on-site.

And watching St. Louis Blues fans, players and families experience the Winter Classic for the first time is a great argument for expanding the scope of the event to new teams and different cities.

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Getty Images

It’s seeing the Blues and their alumni interact, as generations of players celebrate the game.

It’s seeing the incomparable thrill the players have in spending time with their loved ones – a novel “take your family to work” day they didn’t take for granted, even if they had to be a little bit more careful than usual.

“We had family staying on the bench while we’re practicing. The last thing we needed was my mother getting hit with a puck,” said defenseman Alex Pietrangelo.

And it’s seeing the Winter Classic through the eyes of the first-timers who weren’t sure when, or if, they’d get a chance to play in one, and the fans that had waited through eight frigid Januarys before getting one in St. Louis.

“People here love Blues hockey. They know we’re a hockey town. People outside are starting to figure that out,” said defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.

Here’s the thing that we don’t say enough as NHL fans: If you have a hockey team, you’re a hockey town.

Now, we can argue the varying degrees of success, engagement and prestige regarding those towns, but denying any locale the moniker because they don’t possess them on the same level as, like, an Original Six team is ridiculous.

Which is why we have to break up the Stadium Series monopoly and especially the Winter Classic one. Because there are hockey towns that deserve outdoor games, and players in those towns that deserve the experience.

The Columbus Blue Jackets and Nashville Predators are overdue. The Tampa Bay Lightning fans would turn an outdoor game into a massive party – and if you can make ice in L.A., you can make it anywhere. The Carolina Hurricanes already had one of the most successful all-star weekends in recent memory, and would flock to an outdoor game. Give the hockey fans in Texas a chance to fill a building for the Dallas Stars. And hey, the Buffalo Sabres were nice enough to be the Penguins’ foil in the first Winter Classic – maybe it’s time for another appearance, now that they’re fan-fests and stuff?

For the teams that have been gifted with the Stadium Series, consider them for the main stage on Jan. 1 or 2.

“It’s something that everyone around the league deserves to have a chance to play in,” said Shattenkirk. “Hopefully, with them coming to a hockey market like St. Louis and realizing how much support they had at this game, hopefully more teams get an opportunity to play in this game.”

Even if, inevitably, they’ll be playing the Blackhawks.

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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