The NHL’s outdoor games, Herculean in their ambition and execution, have become somewhat humdrum in the years since the Penguins and Sabres met at Ralph Wilson Stadium Jan. 1, 2008, the day Lake Erie’s hockey gods sprinkled down ample snow for added magic.
The novelty has worn off considerably, leading in part to this weekend’s ambitious NHL Outdoors rendition alongside Lake Tahoe, with the ice sheet spread out along the 18th fairway of Edgewood Tahoe Resort, and the rink built in the true spirit of COVID times, with no surrounding stands and no fans in attendance.
In other words, an event originally created for television is now truly, and only, a television event. That’s a good thing, and some added broadcast technology promises only to make it even better.
The Golden Knights and Avalanche squared off on Saturday afternoon at Tahoe, and they’ll be followed Sunday (2 p.m., NBC, 98.5 Sports Hub) by the Bruins and Flyers. It’s the Bruins’ fourth outdoor fling, following their Jan. 1 Winter Classic appearances at Fenway (2010), Gillette (2016), and Notre Dame (2019). Total attendance for the three dates: 181,484, or roughly the equivalent of 10 Garden sellouts.
As on-site events, the games are always a huge, festive success. Fans love to go. They pay big money for the tickets, line up for long waits to purchase pricey merchandise, and generally revel in the celebration of watching hockey happen in the great outdoors.
Truth is, contrary to the old cliché, being there is not twice the fun from a viewing aspect. It’s about half of the TV experience.
Both at Fenway and Gillette, sightlines were abysmal from the vast majority of seats. Game action, for those who were there actually to watch hockey, was best observed on the large TV screens dotted around the landscape. More of those screens would have helped the cause, particularly at Fenway. Gillette, vastly bigger, had a way of shrinking most of the big screens that were available. It was slightly better at Notre Dame, but still a challenge to appreciate the game itself.
NBC came into the Tahoe venture intent on enhancing the TV look, with the use of a couple of drones to provide some unique venue/mood shots and standard cameras, including the center-ice position, stationed at lower elevations than in arenas across the 31-team league.
Bruins fans who had the pleasure of sitting in the first few rows of the old Garden’s side balconies might grow teary-eyed over the view from the center ice camera along the Edgewood fairway. Aside from the tall trees and the snow-capped mountains in the distance, the vantage point is a virtual carbon copy of the “look” from those Garden seats.
Until the early 1980s, the Garden press box was behind the Bruins bench, stretched across nearly the length of the face of the first balcony. When Don Cherry barked to summon the attention of his Lunch Pail Gang on the bench, his words literally floated up to press row. Fans who caught errors in a reporter’s story in that day’s paper could holler down, “Dupes, you blew it again!” Tough room to work at times, but man, the view.
Now we get to see how effectively NBC, with no fans in the stands to worry about, brings the action to the viewers. There was a lot of talk and promise prior to the summer bubble playoff games, also with no fans in the buildings, that unique TV shots would revolutionize the look of the broadcast. It never happened, either in Toronto or Edmonton.
The two drones, though not to be employed for game action, should add some spice. According to nhl.com, one of the drones is capable of reaching 70 miles per hour, or roughly 110 kilometers for Canadian viewers.
NBC director Charlie Dammeyer noted to nhl.com reporter Nick Cotsonika that the speedy drone should deliver a “wow shot” or two. Bruins fans usually count on David Pastrnak for those.
Overall, despite the noted challenges of in-person viewing, the NHL has turned these games into a huge marketing success, though NHL commissioner Gary Bettman often has said the individual events don’t create a huge profit. Some of that margin gets eroded by high production costs, be it to set up a rink in a ballfield or at the edge of majestic Lake Tahoe.
What we have, all these years later, is a method that allows the NHL to drop its game in almost any climate, including next year in Raleigh, N.C. (date to be determined). If this weekend works well, they can try it anywhere, be it with Mount Rushmore in the background (with governmental permission), the casinos along the Vegas Strip, or at the edge of the Grand Canyon.
Ultimately, it will be the TV ratings this weekend, along with social media reach, that will tell the NHL if the scenery is more important than the seats, or at least can compete favorably with packed arenas and souvenir stands.
Wolff showing he can be difficult to play against
In size and style, Bruins defensive prospect Nick Wolff bares a solid resemblance to Kyle McLaren, the former Boston defenseman who stepped right into the back line as an 18-year-old drafted No. 9 overall in 1995.
Wolff, 6 feet 5 inches and 230 pounds, has a slight edge on McLaren (6-4/220) for sheer size. Like McLaren, he likes to hit, which frames his overall game.
“I think we’ve seen growth in his game in the last three weeks,” said AHL Providence coach Jay Leach, who felt Friday’s 1-0 win over Bridgeport was Wolff’s best game. “For sure, he’s come along, his puck play [Friday] was the best we’ve seen and he’s certainly always going to give you his best effort — he’s tough to play against.”
Wolff, 24, signed with Boston last summer after completing his criminal justice degree at the University of Minnesota Duluth, where he won back-to-back NCAA Division 1 championships with the Bulldogs. He was an undrafted free agent, somewhat of a late bloomer, in part because he played both football and hockey through much of high school in Minnesota before concentrating on hockey.
“Loved football,” said Wolff, who preferred playing safety because, “I got to run downhill and put big hits on those running backs.”
In part because of Jamie Langenbrunner, the Bruins’ Minnesota-based director of player development, Wolff attended Bruins’ development camps in the summers of 2018 and 2019 and was eager to sign here (one-year/two-way deal) once hitting the open market out of college.
Thus far, Leach has been impressed.
“I do think we can project that he’s going to be a hard, stay-at-home defenseman,” said Leach, asked what Wolff’s game might look like if he makes it to the NHL. “He has some intangibles that not many have — a la a [Jeremy] Lauzon or a Kevan Miller, even a Connor Clifton … guys that are hard to play against. He comes from a [UMD] program that is well known to develop professional hockey players. They teach guys the right things. I’d say he projects to be a hard defensive defenseman that can kill penalties, eat minutes for you, and has some leadership qualities as well.”
Wolff came into Providence with a bit of a running start, having spent three months in Hungary, playing for the Miskolci Polar Bears in Slovakia’s Extraliga. Dave Allison, his USHL coach for two years, is the Miskolci coach and invited Wolff over as the summer dragged on and no one knew when pro hockey would resume in North America. Wolff played 18 games and put up a 3-2—5 line.
“I enjoyed it,” said Wolff. “Different game … you know, bigger sheet and a lot of man-to-man defense. Lots of tic-tac-toe passes, lots of regroups. It wasn’t like college hockey where you’re just D-to-D (passing with fellow defenseman), put it up the boards, and go forecheck. But at the same time, there was some physicality to it — it’s more physical than some European leagues. But at the same time it wasn’t even close to college.”
The bigger ice sheet, of course, diminishes the number of physical encounters.
“Yeah, well that …,” mused Wolff,“ … and there’s a lot of European players who don’t like to hit.”
Moore has seen emphasis go from strength to speed
John Moore, filling in capably aside Brandon Carlo on the Bruins’ No. 2 defensive pairing with Matt Grzelcyk sidelined, is 30 years old and one of the club’s smoothest skaters.
A 2009 draft pick (Blue Jackets, No. 21 overall), Moore has played 10 NHL seasons and has seen the game change considerably from his first days in in the league with Columbus.
“It’s a complex question,” he said. “Absolutely it’s changed, the game is evolving every year. My first training camp, there was an emphasis on getting as big and as strong as you can, and now it’s making sure you are not sacrificing speed. You see that on the ice, the ability to break pucks out and beat people with your feet is at a premium in today’s game. You look at guys in our lineup like Clifton and Grzelcyk, who really thrive now as undersized guys who skate really well — so absolutely the game has changed. It’s more up-tempo and that kind of plays into my hands.”
Early in his career, noted Moore, it was verboten for defensemen to try to advance pucks by skating behind their own net as a means to carry the puck up a wing and lead a rush.
“A coach would yell at you now, because you’d probably get lined up and run through the boards by some of these big, beefy fourth lines,” he said. “Now that’s considered a really good play and that’s the way you beat forechecks, so that’s played into my hands as a player.”
Bruins fans of a certain age might remember John Bucyk’s signature move, catching unsuspecting defensemen with brutal hip checks as they tried to swing the net. One of his brothers on the Uke Line, Vic Stasiuk or Bronco Horvath, would pressure a defenseman behind the net, only to be met there with a ticket to Palookaville by a derriere-leading Bucyk.
“He’s got a good point,” said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, agreeing with Moore’s assessment. “I think before, when you wheeled the net, the first thing you did, as soon as you got to the near post, you’d better get your head up — to see what’s coming at you at the far post. Because guys looked at those as green-light hits for forwards, catching guys coming around the other side.”
Exhibit A, from the vast Cassidy recollection file: Wendel Clark’s hit on Blues defenseman Bruce Bell in the mid-’80s. Clark, then with the Maple Leafs, lined up an unsuspecting Bell behind the net and knocked him cold with a clean, crushing hit. Bell was free skating with the puck as if working the wing during a Sunday afternoon of pond hockey. He was still unconscious when they loaded him on a stretcher and lugged him out of the Checkerdome.
“That is not in the game as much anymore,” noted Cassidy. “Guys don’t look for that hit. I think [Matthew] Tkachuk does in Calgary a little bit, tries to catch guys. I think that’s what led to his stuff with (Oiler winger) [Zack] Kassian … those hits aren’t there anymore. The players don’t seem to look for them. A different type of player now.”
Wheeling the net today, added Cassidy, is the best breakout in hockey.
“When you get your feet moving, get your shoulder square up ice,” he added. ‘”You know, we’ve seen Charlie McAvoy do it here three, four, five times a night. When he gets a head of steam, that’s the best way to lead the rush, come out of the other side clean. Tough to stop. And Johnny Moore can do that. He has the speed to separate. "
Penguins honor O’Ree with academy for kids
The Penguins in June will open the Willie O’Ree Academy to help young Black players (ages 10-18) to develop their hockey skills and connect for other social and networking opportunities.
Truly a great idea and one the NHL, per senior executive vice president Kim Davis, hopes might be replicated in other cities around the league.
O’Ree, who in 1958 made his NHL debut with the Bruins as the league’s first player of African descent, has no direct connection to Pittsburgh. Now the Penguins have stepped forward to make him the face of a worthy program.
Some 40 years ago, the Penguins incurred the fury of then Boston GM Harry Sinden when they ditched their original igloo blue uniforms for their new black-and-yellow colors. In Sinden’s eyes, it bordered on Black-and-Gold patent infringement.
Now the flightless bird franchise has gone and stolen Willie. Clearly, the right thing to do is for the Pens to surrender their first-round pick in this year’s draft.
Charlie McAvoy will play in his 200th regular-season game Sunday in the outdoor game at Lake Tahoe. He’s already logged 54 playoff games, something Ray Bourque didn’t do until his eighth postseason … There hasn’t been an NHL head coach let go this season, though David Quinn no doubt is feeling the heat in New York, where the Rangers carried a lowly .433 point percentage into weekend play. Quinn, the ex-BU bench boss, is in his third season with the Rangers and has a record barely over .500. No one expected he’d have the Rangers vying for a Cup at this point, but right now it appears they’ll be challenged to make the top four in the East … Former UNH standout Dan Winnik, who hoped to make the Bruins as a camp invitee in 2018, is playing for a third season in Switzerland with Geneve Servette. Headed into weekend play, he ranked second in club scoring (32 games/36 points), trailing only former Oiler draft pick Linus Omark (39 points). Former Harvard winger Tyler Moy is there, too, and stood 7-13—20 going into weekend action … Ex-BU winger Chris Drury, Rangers GM Jeff Gorton’s righthand man, again was named GM of Team USA for the IIHF World Championship (May 21-June 6 in Riga, Latvia). Drury also was the USA GM for last year’s Worlds … Ex-Bruins defenseman Joe Morrow, who came here as part of the Tyler Seguin trade, hooked on recently in the Finnish league with Assat Pori. Morrow’s last NHL tour was with the Winnipeg Jets from 2017-19. He’s only 28, plays the left side, and could find himself back in the NHL in the spring … Matt Fraser, who also came here in the Seguin swap, is playing in Europe (Klagenfurt, Austria) for a fifth season … Finally, best of luck to Matt Chmura, formerly of Holy Cross, who just wrapped up a 15-year hitch spearheading the Bruins’ communication team and marketing efforts and now begins life in the real world as chief marketing officer for Arlington-based Leader Bank.