NHL Fans, Players Still Hungry for Outdoor Hockey After Stadium Series Games

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NHL Fans, Players Still Hungry for Outdoor Hockey After Stadium Series Games
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NEW YORK — The look on Marc Staal's face said it all.

The defenseman is one of 10 Rangers to have played in three outdoor hockey games in two years. He had just wrapped up a second victory at Yankee Stadium in four days—a 2-1 win against the Islanders—and was asked if these types of games were starting to get old. 

He reacted to the question as if it was the dumbest idea since having CeeLo Green perform at the event.

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

"I love it. I think it's awesome," Staal said. "In the middle of the season, it just adds something to look forward to, and then the experience itself is so much fun, the atmosphere and being outside and all that. 

"I'd play in two or three every year."

The fans shared in that joy Wednesday night, as another sold-out crowd plunked down heaps of dollars for tickets and concessions that will line the pockets of teams and players once hockey-related revenue is calculated for the season. 

There were dueling "Let's go Rangers" and "Let's go Islanders" chants throughout the contest that had about a 65/35 split in favor of the Rangers for what was technically an Islanders "home" game. Temperatures dipped into the teens for the midweek game, but it did little to diminish enthusiasm in the House Derek Jeter and Television Revenues from YES Built.

It's the type of passion and joy that will permeate through Soldier Field in Chicago when the Penguins and Blackhawks face off on March 1 and at BC Place in Vancouver when the Senators and Canucks play the following day.

The game in Chicago has long since been sold out, although tickets are available for the game in Vancouver. That was the case for Islanders-Rangers, but the game became sold out about 24 hours before the contest, and it stands to reason the same could happen in Vancouver.

On Friday, NHL CEO John Collins told Dan Rosen of NHL.com that the league would scale back from six outdoor games next year, probably trimming down to four. But after another success Wednesday, commissioner Gary Bettman wasn't as committed to that idea when asked if he knew how many outdoor games he would like to see played next season.

"I don't and neither does John Collins," said Bettman, slicing through the legs of his underling. "We don't know what we're going to do next year, and we really haven' t had any serious discussions with the undertaking that we began this year with six games. We've decided we're going to get through all six, take a deep breath and figure out what we want to do.

"Maybe six, maybe less. I don't think it would be more. We'll have to see."

It's amazing what 150,000 people squeezing through turnstiles and record ratings for three games can do to change the tune of the league in less than a week.

There's a notion that there's a danger in having too many outdoor hockey games, that it will spoil the unique nature of the Winter Classic and eventually fans won't come out in droves.

Who is to say what is too many games and what the breaking point is for the fickle public to turn against something? Where is the guarantee that if the NHL plays two or three outdoor games per year that people wouldn't get sick of them by 2016? If all six outdoor games are sold out this season and ratings for the Winter Classic remain on the rise, why shouldn't the league press its luck with six more money-making machines in 2014-15?

The first season of Survivor debuted on CBS on 2000. It's now been 14 years of idiots on beaches taking part in goofy challenges and eating bugs or whatever else happens on that show, and it remains one of the most-watched programs on television.

Over that time, TV has shifted almost exclusively to reality formats. People are DVRing 30-minute episodes of morbidly obese people living in trailer parks and rich people who do absolutely nothing for a living and intolerant bearded people who have some sort of dynasty that involves ducks.

Think of the Winter Classic as Survivor and all the Stadium Series games as the excess reality shows people still watch. Why can't that format work for the NHL for the next 15 years?

At some point, sure, the world will tire of outdoor hockey. But that time isn't now. 

"The experience of playing outside, that's the highlight of my career," Rangers forward Derick Brassard said. "Just to play here, when both teams are coming out of the tunnel, that's where you realize it's awesome. You share the passion of the game with so many people, and the game meant something. 

"I think if we played once a year, I'd be very happy with that. It was awesome."

"You're just thankful to get this opportunity," said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who is now 3-0 playing outside in the elements. "And everyone showing up tonight to make it so special. I said out there on the ice, it's a great stadium, but you need the fans to make it special."

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You also need the fans to make it wildly profitable. 

Yeah, the hockey tends to fall short of the level you'd get playing inside. Pucks bounce and cross-ice passes have next to no chance of connecting.

But what people forget is games like these aren't about the hockey. It's not as though the puck doesn't bounce at certain indoor rinks where the ice isn't all that great (looking at you, Edmonton). With outdoor games, it's about the experience, and in the NHL's case, what people are willing to pay to be part of it.

Maybe the Winter Classic—which, by the way, is a six-year-old event that was invented to separate fans from their money, so let's all stop talking like it's this hallowed event that should not be sullied—loses luster, but secondary outdoor games will still be big hits in local markets for quite some time.

With the success of the four outdoor games this season, it may take something drastic in Chicago and Vancouver for the NHL to play any fewer than six again next season.

Oh, and financial motivations aside, the NHL may as well give the fans and players a product that they clearly want.

"I'd play every game like this," Islanders captain John Tavares said. "It's a lot of fun. I think for our game, it's great. At the same time, I think we don't want to cross the fine line of what's too much. But certainly, I think anyone that's ever played in it says it's quite the experience."

 

Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveLozo

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