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NHL is pulling off ambitious six-game outdoor series, and that's a good thing

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports
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Los Angeles Kings practice for the NHL Stadium Series hockey game Friday, Jan. 24, 2014, in Los Angeles. The Kings and the Anaheim Ducks will play outdoors at Dodger Stadium on Saturday. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)

LOS ANGELES – It was 60-something degrees Fahrenheit, and from where John Collins was standing in the middle of a major-league baseball stadium, you could see palm trees and a beach volleyball court and a rock-concert stage and a roller-hockey rink and an NHL-caliber ice-hockey rink, with real-live NHL players practicing on it.

“I think you always want to do something that you think is beyond anyone’s wildest dreams,” said Collins, the NHL’s chief operating officer.

The NHL will play its first regular-season outdoor game at a warm-weather venue Saturday, when the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks meet at Dodger Stadium. There is ice where there isn’t supposed to be ice. There will be stars in the stands and in the sky. Cool.

But it goes beyond that. It’s even wilder. The NHL has dreamed so big that it has pushed the limits of sales and logistics to levels we have never seen before – and won’t see again, at least in the near future. So far, for the most part, it appears to be pulling it off.

Consider that the NHL has never held more than two outdoor games in one season.

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Preparations are being made for an outdoor hockey practice for the NHL Stadium Series Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014, …

The NHL has already held one this season, the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day. It sold 105,491 tickets for the game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings at Michigan Stadium, shattering its record by more than 30,000. It drew an average of 8.234 million TV viewers in North America, shattering its regular-season record by more than 1.6 million.

And now?

The NHL is holding two more outdoor games in 18 hours this weekend – on opposite ends of the continent, in opposite conditions. The puck will drop at Dodger Stadium at 9:30 p.m. ET Saturday, when the temperature is supposed have cooled from a high of 77 degrees Fahrenheit to about 63. It will drop at New York’s Yankee Stadium at 12:30 p.m. ET Sunday for New York Rangers-New Jersey Devils. The forecast calls for a high of 19.

And then?

The NHL will hold its third outdoor game in five days – its second in four days in the same city. The Rangers will play the New York Islanders at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night.

And after that?

The NHL will hold two more outdoor games – on back-to-back days, half a continent apart. The Chicago Blackhawks will host the Pittsburgh Penguins at Soldier Field on March 1. The Vancouver Canucks will host the Ottawa Senators at B.C. Place on March 2.

And after all that?

Well, Collins said the NHL will “definitely not” have six outdoor games next season.

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2014 Winter Classic hockey game at Michigan Stadium. (USA TODAY Sports)

This was always going to be a special case. After a lockout wiped out almost half the 2012-13 season, the NHL came back strong with a frantic 48-game schedule and its usual compelling playoff. It wanted to continue the momentum and boost revenue in 2013-14.

It wanted to take advantage of the Super Bowl in the New York area. That’s why there are two outdoor games in the biggest city in North America right before the biggest sporting event in North America.

It also wanted to lead into the Sochi Olympics – and lead out of them. NHL owners don’t like interrupting their season and sending their stars to someone else’s event half-a-world away. This way, TV networks NBC and CBC have something extra to promote during the Olympics – the outdoor games in Chicago and Vancouver.

“The Olympics will do monster ratings in both countries,” Collins said. “We want to make sure they’re pointing toward the restart of the NHL season and then obviously get ready for the Stanley Cup run, which for us is the biggest event of all.”

This is not easy. The NHL does not just flood a field, freeze it, throw out a puck and open the gates. So much goes into holding each and every one of these games – from rink-building to staging to marketing and coordinating everything in between.

For the first time, ice guru Dan Craig did not personally oversee the construction of one of the outdoor rinks. Mike Craig, his son, handled Yankee Stadium and will also handle B.C. Place. The operations staff had to be split between cities and will have to be split again in late February and early March.

“These are big events,” Collins said. “There’s always operational issues. But we have guys who have done big events before, and they know how to handle it.”

This hasn’t been perfect. The NHL cannot control the weather, and cold and snow complicated travel to Michigan Stadium. That apparently cost the league the Guinness world record for hockey attendance because of late arrivals, no-shows and ticket-scanning issues.

The league priced some tickets too high. Many have gone or are going for less than face value on the secondary market, and some haven’t been sold at all. The NHL gave each of its employees in New York four tickets for Wednesday’s game, which has seemed a particularly hard sell.

It remains to be seen how the final five games go. If there are too many empty seats anywhere for any reason, it will look bad.

But Collins said as of Friday night only 100 tickets remained for Saturday night and only a couple hundred remained for Wednesday night. The first New York game is sold out. The Chicago game is sold out. Vancouver? “We have tickets left, but we’ve got some time left,” Collins said.

In the end, the NHL will have sold far more tickets to these games than it would have had they been routine games in regular arenas. The league will have sold more merchandise, drawn more TV viewers and activated more corporate sponsors than it would have otherwise. It will have made more money than it would have otherwise, and in the process, people will have had more fun – from the fans to the players themselves.

Think about it: These aren’t playoff games. These are regular-season games. And the NHL has turned them into spectacles, creating three distinct brands – the Winter Classic, a national game on New Year’s Day; the Heritage Classic, a Canadian game; and the Stadium Series, basically more games in stadiums.

If some of these games make more of an impact locally than nationally, fine. “L.A. doesn’t care that there’s two games in New York,” Collins said. “This is their game. They’re embracing it, and they love it, and it’s going to be special. Hopefully it’s not going to be the only one that they’re going to get, but right now it’s the only one they’ve ever had.”

Other markets don’t care that there will have been six games this season, either. “Every market wants this,” Collins said. “Every non-NHL market who has a stadium or a great venue wants it. So we want to fill that demand.”

Washington will host its long-awaited Winter Classic next season, likely at Nationals Park, and some other markets will get their shot, too. “We have ideas – the markets that everybody kind of points to that we all know would be great,” Collins said. “We already announced Washington. Everybody knows Minnesota would be great. Colorado would be great. If this goes well, San Jose would be great.”

Six games won’t be too much if this is unique and it works. This won’t be too much of a good thing, just a good thing. The NHL is showing what it can do, how far it can go. Could it go too far? Sure. But it’s not there yet.

“If there’s anything to prove,” Collins said, “it’s to prove that hockey can be a lot bigger. The business of hockey and the brand of hockey can be a lot bigger.”

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