January 12, 2009
From the "red menace" speculation that it would raid talent from the NHL to the Russian league's excellent health benefits, we've dogged the KHL from time to time. Making Ben Clymer and Darius Kasparaitis all-stars didn't help, either.
But credit where it's due: The inaugural KHL All-Star Game had one hell of a picturesque setting in Red Square over the weekend, even if the frigid temps made for a slightly more tepid tempo than most all-star affairs:
Someone made the case here not too long ago for adding a little art and personalization to hockey helmets; seeing those Crest Whitening domes on Russian players makes us think that wouldn't be such a bad idea.
Otherwise, there's no arguing that seeing St Basil's Cathedral in the background of a hockey game is pretty killer. Kudos to that fishbowl-lens camera in back of the goal, which managed to capture both the action and the scope of the scenery; and the fans were closer to the action than they were in either Ralph Wilson or Wrigley, too.
But about those fans: Jeff Klein of the New York Times Slap Shot blog said one of the reasons the KHL game was a lifeless affair was due to the number of fans in attendance -- an observation that could be taken into consideration as the NHL boldly moves forward with its signature Winter Classic events.
In the end, the K.H.L. game in Red Square did not come anywhere close to the most iconic outdoor hockey scene of recent years, 73,000 in the snow at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium on Jan. 1, 2008 - or even to somewhat less atmospheric but still stirring sights, like Wrigley Field this year, Commonwealth Stadium in 2003, or the Stade de Suisse in 2007.
A word of advice, then, to the K.H.L.: outdoor games are great, but you need at least 25,000 people on hand to provide the atmosphere a proper sporting event needs. So enough with games at what amount to public skating rinks - play your all-star game next year at a bandy stadium. There are big ones in Arkhangelsk, Khabarovsk ... you could even lay down a sheet in a soccer stadium in Moscow or Petersburg.
After the triumph at Wrigley, the NHL has a rather logical Winter Classic path in front of it -- through Boston and New York, through Happy Valley and Denver, through Minnesota and Detroit. At some point, just to break up the stadium monotony, the notion of playing the game in some sort of untraditional environment will likely be considered.
Like The Mall in DC (and don't think freezing the Reflecting Pool hasn't crossed a few minds in the District, no matter how foolhardy the notion). Or Central Park. Or the side of some Colorado mountain. Or some frozen tundra in Minnesota that'll make the conditions in Buffalo seem like Maui by comparison. In any event, the number of fans that can be crammed into temporary seating for such a game would probably be closer to the KHL's crowd than Wrigley's.
So is Klein right? Is there a mandatory minimum for Winter Classic crowds? Is the size of the crowd more important than the location of the game for the purposes of television?
One final Winter Classic thought on a chilly January morning: If the AHL and other minor leagues get in on the act, will the gimmick quickly lose its luster?