The novelty has worn off, but the Winter Classic still matters

WASHINGTON — This is not just another outdoor hockey game. Not to Washington. Not to the Capitals. Not to Brooks Laich.

Not long ago, the Capitals ranked near the bottom of the NHL in record and attendance. The players would joke they had an “S.O.S.” – a “sold-out section.”

“I remember my first couple years,” said Laich, whose first full seasons were 2005-06 and ’06-07. “You almost couldn’t give your tickets away. People were like, ‘Oh, hockey? No, it’s OK. I’m not interested.’ ”

Thanks to superstar Alex Ovechkin and a high-flying offense, the Capitals changed that. By 2009-10, they won the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team, and they had a new kind of “S.O.S.” – a “sold-out season.” They had 100-percent capacity.

Attendance at the Verizon Center has come a long way since Brooks Laich arrived in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Attendance at the Verizon Center has come a long way since Brooks Laich arrived in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Despite failing in the playoffs, despite missing the playoffs, the Capitals have continued to fill their building ever since. Their lowest percentage of capacity has been 95.8 – and that was in 2012-13, after a lockout. Verizon Center is full of red. It roars.

“A lot of my friends from home say they want to come to a Canadian city and watch us play,” said Laich, a native of Wawota, Saskatchewan. “I say, ‘No. You want to see an NHL atmosphere? Come to Washington and watch us play, because the atmosphere here is as good as any in the league.’ ”

Come for the Winter Classic on Thursday. Watch each Capital walk out next to a model of the U.S. Capitol. See them skate on a mock reflecting pool and play the Chicago Blackhawks at Nationals Park.

This time “S.O.S.” will refer to a “sold-out stadium.” There will be about 43,000 fans in the stands – more than twice the number at a normal game – most decked out in Capitals and Winter Classic gear.

Yes, the Winter Classic still matters.

“To anybody that says the novelty’s worn off, I would say go out to one,” Laich said. “Go see what it makes you feel like for three or four days. Go out early. Go to the ballpark. Talk to the people. There are smiles all around.”

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There is no doubt the novelty has worn off on a national level, whether you’re talking about the Winter Classic in particular or NHL stadium games in general.

This is the seventh Winter Classic and 14th NHL stadium game. It does not feature a rivalry or historic venue. It follows last season’s six stadium games – an NHL record-shattering crowd of more than 100,000 at Michigan Stadium, the first warm-climate game at Dodger Stadium, two games at Yankee Stadium, a game at Soldier Field and a game in Vancouver.

If the 1 p.m. face-off is pushed back because of sun glare, Washington vs. Chicago could run into the first college football playoff game – Oregon vs. Florida State at the Rose Bowl – which could hurt TV ratings.

But consider some things:

-- The novelty actually wore off on a national level a while ago. There seemed to be little buzz before the 2012 Winter Classic in Philadelphia. NHL chief operating officer John Collins was already talking about the balance between national and local interest. But the game was a success in Philly by all accounts.

-- The NHL staged six stadium games last season for specific reasons: It wanted to boost interest and revenue after the 2012-13 lockout, it wanted to take advantage of the New York Super Bowl, and it wanted to lead into and out of the Sochi Olympics. Critics said six was too many. Well, the market disagreed. The NHL drew 376,837 people to those six games – 263,126 more than the home teams could have drawn had those games been played in their usual arenas. It sold a heck of a lot more sponsorships, concessions and merchandise than it would have otherwise, too.

-- The NHL will have only two stadium games this season: the Winter Classic and a Stadium Series game between the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks on Feb. 21 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. But the NHL went to two only because it wanted to see how the six went and didn't have time to line up more this season. Every team wants one if it hasn’t had one, or another if it has. Expect three or four next season.

These are regular-season games – each just one out of 1,230 on the NHL schedule, one out of 82 on the teams’ schedules – and the league has turned them into cash cows and memorable spectacles. Say what you want about worn novelty and cold weather and high prices and poor sightlines. The demand has been strong in each market, and the impact can be big.

The NHL and the teams involved control the tickets to these games. Most seats go to season-ticket holders, sponsors and such. For this Winter Classic, only about 600 tickets were made available to the general public – by lottery. The Blackhawks sold about 3,000. The Capitals sold the rest. “The demand in Washington for this game was that big,” Collins said.

The average ticket price is $205, so the gate alone will be almost $9 million. (A normal gate would be about $1 million, maybe $1.5 million.) Now add about $5 million in sponsorships and about $2 million in concessions. Now add millions more in merchandise.

More than 100,000 fans packed Michigan Stadium for the 2014 Winter Classic. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
More than 100,000 fans packed Michigan Stadium for the 2014 Winter Classic. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Now subtract millions in costs – stadium rental, entertainment, staging. Is this a cash grab? Yeah, you bet it’s a cash grab, in the sense that the purpose of professional sports is to make money. But the NHL also invests a lot of money into the product to add value to the tickets – it’s an event, not just a game – and make the business model sustainable. The league makes a profit of about 30 to 40 percent.

Finally, add how the Winter Classic attracts media interest in the host city around the event, how it attracts fans and sponsors who stay beyond the event, how it has an effect on the team and the city long after the event.

The Detroit Red Wings have posted pictures of last year’s Winter Classic all over Joe Louis Arena – of the snow falling, of the stands full at the Big House. Fans wear their Winter Classic sweaters to the Joe and around town. Everyone remembers the event. No one seems to remember the Wings lost the game.

“It’s really about the memories,” Collins said, “creating lasting memories for generations.”

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Jeff Halpern was born in the District of Columbia in 1976. He grew up in Rockville, Md. His father was a New York Rangers fan, so he grew up with hockey. He skated at a shopping mall. He went to games at the old Cap Centre in Landover, Md.

“It was kind of like a dark, cavernous place,” Halpern said. “I had a lot of fun there, but hockey wasn’t a premier thing.”

Halpern played in prep school in New England and in college at Princeton. He went on to have a long NHL career that included seven seasons with his hometown Capitals. He has seen the Capitals move into a new arena and a new practice rink in Arlington, Va., and has seen hockey become much more popular. He now lives in Bethesda, Md., with a stepson playing hockey in the area.

“To see how it’s grown, at the pro level here, at the youth level, it’s pretty astounding from 35 years ago, from when I started playing,” Halpern said. “I think a game like this is almost a celebration for the hockey community.”

It is. As NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said: “Our decision to put the game here had a lot to do with the fact this has become a hockey market.” As Collins said: “Washington deserves this game. You’re talking about a big, important market in so many ways – that really has embraced hockey.”

The Winter Classic is the latest step in increasing the popularity of hockey in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
The Winter Classic is the latest step in increasing the popularity of hockey in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

But the hope is that the Winter Classic will mean even more to Washington.

In 2006-07, the Blackhawks were two spots behind the Capitals in attendance, second-to-last in the NHL. Team president John McDonough will tell you the 2009 Winter Classic at Wrigley Field played a large role in how they reestablished their brand in the Chicago market, even though winning the Stanley Cup in 2010 and ’13 obviously ended up being most important. The Blackhawks now sell out every game and have become big shots in Chicago.

The Capitals have a long way to go to match the Blackhawks on the ice, but the Winter Classic could boost them Thursday and beyond.

“This could be what helps them get to the next level,” Collins said. “Does Washington really become a full-fledged hockey market?”