Saturday, January 2, 2016

The NHL Winter Classic: The Old, The New, and The Outdated

The National Hockey League's Winter Classic has become one of my favorite events on New Year's Day. Yesterday's game between the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens was the 8th in the series. As I watched, I was struck by the balance between old and new aspects of the game of hockey, as well as one outdated aspect that really ought to go.
The old aspects are the most obvious. The Winter Classic is played outdoors! The elements didn't play a large part in this year's game - no major snowfall, some wind, temperatures cold enough for decent ice but not so cold as to be too brutal for the players and fans. This year the game was at Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots, which meant putting up with a good number of Belichick/Brady/Gronkowski references from the announcers. (They should have added some New England Revolution comments, too, but I didn't notice any.) That's OK, though, I'll put up with plenty of that sort of thing in order to listen to Doc Emrick call a hockey game.

The teams reflected a bit of old-time hockey, too. Two Original Six clubs with a whole lot of history behind them. As a Detroit Red Wings fan, I don't have a lot of love for either Montreal or Boston. If I had to choose one, I'd go with Montreal - with all else being equal, when it comes to hockey, go with Canada. In that respect, it was a great game, as the Canadiens smoked the Bruins 5-1. And it could have been quite a bit worse, if Boston goalie Tuukka Rask hadn't played extremely well in the first couple of periods.

On the new side, the sheer amount of setup and technology in putting on the Winter Classic is pretty amazing. You can't rely on the weather to always be conducive to outdoor hockey, and outdoor stadiums aren't built with hockey rinks in mind. So the NHL puts in a lot of work getting everything set up, and prepared as much as possible for whatever weather conditions may crop up. This photo gallery has a huge number of pictures showing a lot of what they did to get the venue ready.

Another new aspect this year was the first ever Outdoor Women's Classic game. The Boston Pride and Montreal Canadiennes played on New Year's Eve, ending in a 1-1 tie. Women's professional hockey has very little exposure, particularly in the United States. I wish they'd mentioned it a bit more during the TV broadcast, and that the organizers had gotten the word out earlier. I didn't even realize they had played until after the fact.

And then we have the outdated - hockey fights. The NHL is the only major sports league that allows its players to get into old-fashioned fist-fights right out there on the playing surface. Maybe back in the day, it served a purpose, but not any more. The main arguments for allowing fights to continue are tradition and protecting your own players. Tradition is a stupid reason to allow any action outside the game itself that causes players to get hurt, especially as we learn more about concussions and long-term impact of head injuries. And I don't buy the protection argument, since there are plenty of ways during the rough-and-tumble flow of a hockey game to make sure an opponent knows that you didn't appreciate whatever he did earlier. If you need to hit a guy so he knows that you're protecting your own, do it during the game. It's past time for the NHL to call an end to fighting on the ice, and put some rules with real penalties in place to enforce it.

Fights and lop-sided score notwithstanding, the Winter Classic was still the best sports event on New Year's Day 2016. (All the college football blowouts fell well short.) I hope the NHL continues the tradition for many years to come.

No comments:

Post a Comment