This NHL Winter Classic was as good as it gets
The latest iteration of the Winter Classic was exceptional, as good as it gets on the two most critical points: 1. Quality of game; 2. Quality of ice. Frankly, without the latter, the former is a guaranteed bust.
To top it all off from an event-staging perspective, the thick cloud cover over South Bend, Ind., never abated. Without a hint of sunshine from puck drop to the final second of the Bruins’ 4-2 victory on Tuesday, the ice never softened and TV did not have to contend with the camera wincing that comes with solar glare.
“Very nice,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said during a between-periods chat with the media, “so I thank Notre Dame for the divine inspiration of cloud cover.”
Had the game been scheduled for what was a rain-soaked Dec. 31 instead of Jan. 1, Bettman confirmed, it would have been the first washout in what is now the NHL’s history of 26 outdoor games. Each of the league’s outdoor events runs more efficiently, thanks in large part to a brilliant, dogged ice crew, and fans (a sellout of 76,000-plus at Notre Dame) continue to flock to it. The lines at the merchandise kiosks nearly stretched all the way to Chicago.
Overall, it remains a marketing sensation, with the league fully recognizing that the day will come when bad weather sends everyone home and leaves TV with a three-hour window of New Year’s Day infomercials.
“We’ve been very fortunate with the weather,” acknowledged Bettman. “But it is something that we have to try to account for, but it’s unpredictable. Which I guess at some level makes this the ultimate reality show.”
Amid all the hard-earned success, however, there remains the awkward, ill-fitting placement of the rink itself within whatever chosen arena. Bad optics. Such as Gillette in 2016, or any stadium of, say, 40,000 seats or more, the sheet got lost in the great outdoors at Notre Dame. No matter where, the best seats in the house are still a stretch when it comes to fans actually following the action.
That was underscored all the more at Notre Dame, the iconic stadium with a lone giant message board/TV screen (at the end opposite Touchdown Jesus). There’s really no way around it. A small rink looks like a few drops of water when poured into the ocean of a large stadium.
The TV viewing experience is better than being there, though significantly different from standard NHL fare because of the absence of spectators around the rink’s immediate perimeter. Again, no answer for that one.
If the demand were there to make it a pay-per-view event, theoretically the league could fashion the floor of a huge arena into a TV studio and ring the boards with a bowl of bleacher seats. The visual would be far more akin to standard TV viewing, though the noise from a crowd of only 5,000-7,000 might make it feel more like the ECHL. But TV can work miracles.
The league also announced on Tuesday, around Bettman’s informal news conference, that next year’s Winter Classic will be held at the Cotton Bowl, with the Dallas Stars facing an opponent yet to be determined. Total guess here: Vegas. Sure, there are many NHL franchises within a shorter commute, but the Golden Knights continue to be a fascination around the league. Last year’s Cup finalist also is playing much better of late, tied for fourth in the league’s overall standings as the weekend approached.
On Oct. 26 of next season, the Flames and Jets also will take it outdoors, in an official NHL game at the 33,000-seat Mosaic Stadium in Regina, Saskatchewan. That one’s a bit curious: small stadium, acting as host to two teams that began life as expansion teams in Atlanta. Maybe they’ll play “Brass Bonanza” when either side scores a goal? The Whalers’ theme song, official tune of the disenfranchised.
Regina is about 350 miles from Winnipeg and 450 from Calgary. The combined capacity of the NHL rinks in Winnipeg and Calgary is 34,610. If everybody makes the trip to Regina, maybe it works.
“Good stadium,” said Bettman, asked why Regina worked. “We’re a little more challenged in the Canadian market on stadiums. There’s been a great deal of interest expressed by Regina over the years and they very much wanted to host the game. When we looked at all of the factors and we looked at the two teams participating, we thought it would fit nicely . . . all factors combined, we thought it would work.”
Come puck drop in South Bend, the temperature was 39 degrees, the same at that hour in Vegas (albeit 10:25 a.m.) in Sin City. Bettman said he has talked with both Florida franchises about possibly holding a Winter Classic in the Sunshine State, though hinted that it likely would mean playing the game at night. Unless, of course, divine inspiration could make the trip down from South Bend.
Lites’s comments blunt but fair
Not likely Jim Lites will be front and center at the bargaining table when NHL owners and players get around to hashing out the next collective bargaining agreement. But man, the 66-year-old Dallas Stars CEO sure knows how to get a party started.
Frustrated by his blasé 19-16-3 squad, and the thought of a ninth playoff DNQ in 11 seasons, Lites last Friday torched the franchise’s two offensive headliners, Jamie Benn and ex-Bruin Tyler Seguin, with words most family-friendly news outlets still can’t report in print or over the airwaves.
But to paraphrase:
“They are bleeping horse-bleep,” Lites said, encouraging, in fact courting, the media to report his profanity-laced two-hander. “I don’t know how else to put it.”
Not a whole lot to unpack here, folks. This was a calculated ploy by Lites, and he made clear he did it with the blessing of club owner Tom Gagliardi. They want better results. They’re paying for fine sirloin and getting hamburger. Above all, they want better effort and production from their two star forwards, who next fall will be on the books for a combined $19.35 million, roughly one-quarter of the Stars’ total payroll. With no chance of kicking them in the wallet, Lites went for their most private of parts — ego, integrity, dignity.
The immediate results: the Stars went 2-0-1 over their next three, Benn with a pair of goals and nine shots on net, and Seguin with a 2-2—4 line and 17 shots. It looks like Lites’s intended shots hit their marks, but with the entire second half to play, a three-game test sample really isn’t large enough to make an accurate, full assessment.
Here in the Hub of Hockey, Harry Sinden often was salty in his remarks regarding players and coaches in his days as Bruins president and GM, but even Give ’em Hell Harry never went to Lites’s length. Among Sinden’s best, when informed Canadian Olympian Joe Juneau might sign in the Swiss League instead of with the Bruins after the 1992 Games: “Hope he learns to yodel.”
Lites speaks for the owner. The guy who pays the bills has the right to say what he wants, and in public for all to hear, if he so wishes. Keep in mind, Lites was smart enough to attack only their games, and critiquing play is everyone’s right. It would be far more interesting around the best hockey league in the world if others took Jungle Jim’s honest approach.
In 2019, the media criticism/scrutiny of the NHL product has been muted. Most of the old-guard reporters have gone to pasture, be it through frustration, retirement, buyouts or by the boot. By and large, particularly in the 24 US markets, newspapers have fewer general sports columnists, and the vast majority of them would rather wrap both naked hands around raw uranium than bang out 900-1,000 words about a sport that many of them rank with bowling and curling on their list of interests. They don’t care, and their editors typically care even less.
To that very point, it was telling that Lites, amid his crafted tirade, implored reporters, “Write it!”
Amen, Jungle Jim.
For their parts, Benn and Seguin tiptoed along the high road with their comments when asked for their reactions. Benn noted he “did not play” for Lites and correctly said he played for his teammates. Seguin, whose blend of play and personality led to his quick exit in Boston, said he had been unaware how Lites felt and understood his play needed to improve.
In a true sign of the times, the players’ union responded some 72 hours later with a statement calling Lites’s remarks unprofessional.
Not really. More like extreme, raw, honest, and unequivocal. The whole product needs more of it. Unless the day comes when the Stanley Cup is merely a participation trophy and everyone gets a pat on the back and a lollipop for the ride home.
If words are too tough, little chance you’ll win the fight to get to the net.
Oilers’ Chiarelli got what he could
Mounting injuries on the backline, particularly the costly losses of Oscar Klefbom and Kris Russell, sent Edmonton GM Peter Chiarelli into a scramble last weekend, and the ex-Bruins boss netted a pair of back-of-the-order guys in Alex Petrovic (via the Panthers) and Brandon Manning (Blackhawks).
“Not to say we weren’t fishing in bigger water,” Chiarelli told the Edmonton media after the deals.
Yet another lesson in roster management and building that many fans, even the more-than-casual observers, often either don’t understand or refuse to acknowledge. The nature of business in the new NHL is that rosters are constructed in the offseason, typically around significant deals into and out of the June draft, and then the start of free agency on July 1.
Once the season begins, trades are the domain of the tire repair shop, as assortment of plugs and patches and replacement valves. Oilers fans, and some media, implored Chiarelli to find a top-four fix on the back end. Great idea. Just not reasonable. There are maybe 90-100 true top-four defensemen across the 31 teams, and typically they are: 1. Pricey; 2. Locked in with no-trade clauses.
So, what’s a GM to do? Precisely what we saw in Edmonton: shore up the blue line with depth guys and try to stem the bleedout until the varsity likes of Russell and Klefbom are upright, taking fluids and blocking shots again.
Chiarelli’s acquisition of Manning was extra sticky because it was Manning, then playing for the Flyers, who drilled Connor McDavid when the phenom center was a rookie Oiler. McDavid fractured his collarbone on the dirty smack (labeled “classless” at the time by McDavid) and missed half the season.
According to Chiarelli, he previously attempted to acquire Manning in a deal, and “pulled Connor aside” at the time to make certain he had no problem with the notion.
McDavid’s response, according to the GM: “No, he’s a player who would help us.”
The Oilers, after an initial jump in the standings under new coach Ken Hitchcock, had only one win in their last seven games prior to the deals, and had allowed 31 goals. Not a formula for staying in the hunt for a playoff spot, and one certain to get Chiarelli turfed if it continued.
“We felt it was imperative to shore up our defense right now,” he said.
To get the Manning deal done, Chiarelli had to give up left wing Drake Caggiula, the hottest free agent property coming out of the NCAA (North Dakota) in the spring of 2016. Like a lot of kids, his numbers have yet to come around in the NHL. In 2½ seasons since signing as a free agent, he had posted but 27 goals and 49 points in 156 games.
Sure, maybe one day Caggiula morphs into Martin St. Louis, but don’t bet on it. The Oilers were yielding 40 shots or more per night, and though better stock might be available in a few weeks as the Feb. 25 trade deadline approaches, Petrovic and Manning were the best Chiarelli could wring out of a seller’s market.
“These are not top-four defensemen,” he said. “But they’re good, solid defensemen with experience. They both defend hard and they both move well.”
Alex Ovechkin said his “body needs a rest” and he’ll skip All-Star Weekend, Jan. 25-26, in San Jose. The league-mandated penalty for his no-show: a one-game suspension. In other words, Ovechkin gets more of what he wants, time off. Whatever, I guess. It’s a fluff event. But when an important voice such as Ovechkin’s is lost at All-Star events, it hurts the players’ overall case that they’ll do anything and everything to help grow the game . . . Received plenty of the expected criticism here off a column last week that Sean Kuraly be given a shot as a top-six winger. The crux of the pushback: He doesn’t have the skill set to be more than a third- or fourth-line grinder. Precisely what was being said about Brad Marchand when he came aboard in 2009-10 . . . Ex-Boston College winger Cam Atkinson, whose size and skill set fit the Martin St. Louis template, is in the thick of a career season, and recently told NHL.com’s Dan Rosen he “just kind of fell back in love” with the game. Atkinson, 5 feet 8 inches and 180 pounds, needed time on the sideline with a broken foot to rekindle his playing passion. He’s on a pace to push 90 points, playing with linemates Pierre-Luc Dubois and Russian wizard Artemi Panarin in Columbus. Atkinson, who departed the Heights in 2011 after three NCAA seasons, never has posted more than 35 goals and 62 points . . . Ex-Boston University winger John Hynes, now in his fourth season behind the Devils’ bench, was handed a multiyear contract extension Thursday by GM Ray Shero. Hynes is one of three ex-Terriers, along with Mike Sullivan (Penguins) and David Quinn (Rangers), who are NHL bench bosses. All played for Jack Parker, who had he the sense to earn his MBA during his years on Comm. Ave., could be collecting deep royalties right now . . . Bit of a belated thanks, but a good chunk of the winters of my youth, 55-60 years ago, was spent on a patch of ice on Page Field in Bedford’s town center. It was the charge of the Bedford Fire Department, red lights flashing on their shiny trucks, to make regular stops there, hoist hoses over snowbanks, and flood the patch for fresh ice. So, hat tip to you, gents, for fussing with the hydrants and pumper trucks. There was nothing better than being the first to arrive there on Saturday, with hockey skates slung over the shoulder, stick in hand, and a smooth, fresh sheet mirroring the morning sky.