We’re mad as hell and we’re not gonna take it anymore!
That’s the sentiment of most hockey fans these days, especially after the NHL scrapped the crown jewel of the regular season: the Winter Classic. The Jan. 1 game in Ann Arbor, Mich., between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs has been canceled due to greed. Er, the lockout. Sadly, there’s not much the fans can do besides grouse about it.
But there is something the players can do.
NHL players don’t need the league to hold a series of exhibition games, and maybe their own outdoor game. By doing so, they can thrill fans, satisfy their own hockey joneses, give back to communities, and deliver a nice slapshot to the NHL’s breezers.
Sidney Crosby’s agent, Pat Brisson, has already told SportingNews.com he would “explore” the idea of a tour if the lockout continues much longer. Brisson led a European circuit for more than two dozen NHL players during the last lockout in 2004-05. “We had a plane (for the tour) for 17 days,” he told Liz Mullen in October. “(Now) the cost of the plane and the cost of the insurance may be more. But the revenues may be higher.”
[Related: Why it's OK the NHL canceled the 2013 Winter Classic]
Great idea. And maybe they can even take it outside.
The American Hockey League has already made this work. The AHL’s first outdoor game in 74 years took place in 2009 at the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse, and it was called the Mirabito Outdoor Classic. Although it was put on by the Syracuse Crunch, the key was in the sponsorship of the event. Mirabito Energy Products served as the title sponsor, but there were several other backers including Time Warner, Toyota, Labatt Blue, Coca-Cola, and Dunkin’ Donuts. There were even local sponsors. “Let’s just say the response in the corporate community was beyond our expectations,” said Crunch owner Howard Dolgon. “Not only were they involved financially, they were involved in other ways.”
So involved, in fact, that several sponsors have reached out to Dolgon about staging a game at Syracuse University’s Carrier Dome as soon as next year. “We’d like to do it,” Dolgon told Yahoo! Sports on Tuesday. “We’ve had significant conversations. We’d like to set the indoor record. That’s our goal.”
That certainly seems possible. The first version of the AHL game in ‘09 drew more than 20,000 fans and the third rendition, in Philadelphia, drew more than 45,000. The Carrier Dome, although obviously indoors, seats nearly 50,000. That’s great business for minor pro hockey, especially considering tickets for the first game went fast at $50 per. With the right planning and leadership, the NHLPA can pick up the baton and stage its own version. Odds are there would be plenty of interested venues and sponsors, especially if certain NHL players show up. (Cough: Crosby.)
How about holding a game in New York to benefit victims of Hurricane Sandy? The tour could go from there, with some proceeds going to charities in a particular city or region. There should be no more than a handful of these games, to protect players’ health (and the dilution of the product), but an outdoor game (or a few) could spark plenty of fan interest while we wait out the work stoppage.
[Also: NHL promises 'next' outdoor game will be held in Michigan]
Some NHL players have already done this on a small scale. Max Talbot started a mini-tour in Quebec in September. “We had three objectives,” he told the Montreal Gazette. “Obviously, we want to stay in shape, but we also wanted to thank the fans for their support and we wanted to raise some money for charity.” Sounds perfect. So why can’t this be bigger? Why can’t it be outdoors? Sure, there has to be insurance, a strong promoter, and good lawyers involved. “It’s a major undertaking,” cautions Dolgon. “I don’t know if the players have the wherewithal.” But Dolgon built a rink on a dirt racetrack. So it can be done.
Think of the possibilities. Players could be drafted, All-Star Game style, but they could be chosen by fan voting. Let’s say there’s a game in Hamilton, Ont. Fans from certain regions, like the Maritimes or the Prairies, could vote for players and create a team they “own.” There could be a game in Minnesota, Michigan or Massachusetts that features college players against Canadian junior alums. There could be a Canada vs. U.S. “rematch” of the 2010 Olympic final in Vancouver. Many of the top players are in Russia and Europe, but there could be a game over there as well.
NBA players staged exhibition games during their lockout: Kevin Durant raised money for Single Parents Support Network in Oklahoma City; the Cavs put on a show to support pediatric cancer research; LeBron James, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony teamed up for a game at the University of Pennsylvania to fundraise for the building of a Philadelphia basketball court. (James was mercilessly booed.)
[Nick Cotsonika: The hockey world according to owner-player Jaromir Jagr]
So this isn’t unprecedented. But an outdoor mini-tour would be new. It would be fun. It would be for a good cause (or several). And it certainly would give the NHL bosses something to think about, as players could raise money – perhaps quite a bit of it – without the owners’ help.
Too much has been lost in this lockout. Way too much. The prior stoppage was slightly more tolerable considering fans knew the need for a reboot. This, however, feels petty and wrong. The cancellation of the Winter Classic was extra painful, as that game conveys the joy of the sport. The looks on the players’ faces when they play outdoors, always full of glee and wonder, reminds us all why we love hockey.
That feeling has been stolen for a year. But the players can hit the road, lace ‘em up, and get it back.
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