January 02, 2010
Could Gillette Host Winter Classic?
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
January 1, 2010. The day all of New England rediscovered its hockey roots.
The late Jim McKay of ABC Sports used to love to say "They're racing at Indianapolis!" right at the start of the 500 every Memorial Day weekend. If he were alive and calling the 2010 NHL Winter Classic on Friday, he might be so moved to say "They're playing hockey at Fenway!" Taking into account all that has been said and written about perhaps the most unique sporting event in Boston sports history, the fact that this was at Fenway Park was the most endearing and compelling element of all.
The day was like no other. The Bruins were trailing for the first 58 minutes of the game to the Philadelphia Flyers, 1-0, the same score the Flyers beat the Bruins by in Game 6 of the 1974 Stanley Cup finals at the Spectrum. The Bruins rallied to tie the game at 1-1 thanks to a Mark Recchi goal, then won the game two minutes into overtime on a goal by Marco Sturm. The crowd got into chanting matches between Bruin fans and Flyer fans, but in the end it was the home crowd that got into a frenzy. The blending of snow, ice and hockey and the Boston baseball cathedral made for a beautiful sight which far outdid the buildup.
Still, you had some drawbacks, none of which was weather related, as many feared.
You have some bad seats at Fenway, even for baseball or any other event. But instead of a handful of bad seats, it was about two-thirds of the park. Anyone seated in box seats could hardly see the action at all, as you need to be elevated above the boards to see the action. The bleachers seats are far away from the batters box anyway, but being far away from the ice rink forced you to really need binoculars, though at least you were elevated. Unless you were in the upper deck, the luxury boxes or the monster seats, you had to be satisfied with just being there and enjoying Fenway like you've never enjoyed it before.
There was talk of holding this game at Gillette Stadium, but Fenway Park seemed both the logical favorite as well as the romantic favorite. A Globe article addressed the fact that football stadia make for better outdoor hockey venues. Two years ago, Ralph Wilson Stadium got this whole Winter Classic concept off and running as over 70,000 Sabre fans jammed into the home of the Bills to watch Pittsburgh win in a shootout. The Bruins and the NHL used the example of Wrigley Field last year, as the Black Hawks and Detroit Red Wings battled a year ago at the Cubs baseball cathedral. You could tell without much thinking about it that, while it was "awesome" to have the game at Wrigley Field, Ralph Wilson Stadium was a much better place to see this sort of thing.
With Wrigley Field hosting last year, most everyone out there wondered how soon Fenway Park would host this game. No one a year ago thought that it would be as soon as the next year. The game turned out to be all that was promised and more. But a lot of people in this area are going to want more of this outdoor product: 300,000 ticket requests for this game indicate that the interest in this area would justify doing this once a year here in these parts.
But if you make it an annual event in this area, assuming NHL commissioner Gary Bettman can be convinced that it can work without reducing the impact in other cities, some consideration has to be given to the venue. Bob Kraft was approached regarding the availability of Gillette Stadium, but the idea was dismissed quickly. It was not practical to tie up Gillette Stadium for three weeks during the time period where the Patriots would be making a playoff push, or worse, hosting playoff games. Fenway Park was the fallback venue for this game, but it was perhaps the sentimental favorite given that Wrigley Field hosted this game last year.
Gillette Stadium can work for an annual outdoor hockey game, even several games as well (there are some more collegiate hockey games to be played at Fenway before they tear down the rink). The solution is to enjoin such an event from the "Winter Classic" aegis and move the game(s) to February, well off of any conflicts with the Patriots.
Weather tendencies around here actually favor February over January. There is the old wives' tale about the "January Thaw" and the "February Freeze", but it does have some merit. The Blizzard of 1978, for example, was in February. Februaries tend to be colder in these parts than Januaries, and therefore not so susceptible to postponements due to warm weather or rain or both.
What the Bruins could do is to find out as soon as possible from the NFL when the AFC Championship Game will be played, then start constructing the ice rink the very next day. Since the Super Bowl will never be played at Gillette Stadium, they could avoid any chance of conflict with the Patriots. It takes three weeks to get the ice rink into game condition, so since the Super Bowl is two weeks after the AFC Championship Game and is now held in February, three weeks would be perfect timing.
If you remove NBC from the mix, you then open up any other team as a possible opponent. The best opponent for the Bruins for this Winter Classic was actually the Montreal Canadiens, not the Flyers. The NHL is a little fuzzy in this area, wanting to focus on Original Six venues in the USA, which leaves them with only Chicago, Detroit, New York and Boston. First of all, two years ago the teams were two non-Original Six teams (Pittsburgh, Buffalo). Second of all, the real problem for NBC is generating the best television ratings as possible, and you do that with USA teams, not Canadian teams.
The problem with Montreal and Boston on NBC is that it has great regional appeal but zero national appeal. The only two opponents considered for the Bruins at Fenway were the Flyers and the Washington Capitals. The Flyers were chosen for their 35-year-old rivalry over the chance for the nation to see Alexander Ovechkin in this game. The New York Rangers were likely passed over because they are a probable candidate to host the 2011 Classic (most likely at Yankee Stadium). But if you localize the event, you can then bring in the Canadiens, bang out Gillette Stadium, bring in NESN (or maybe ESPN or the NHL Network so all the nation could see it) and CBC to televise it (you can bet that national TV ratings in Canada would be pretty good). Gillette Stadium would sell out with absolutely no trouble, and the game would be even more endearing than the one on Friday.
As for other games, one could bring collegiate hockey to Gillette also just like this year at Fenway. Since the Beanpot Classic is also held in February, you could perhaps use Gillette to host it. The problem there is that the Beanpot is largely a Boston event rather than a New England event, and the hosting of such an event 30 miles to the south might not bring in the crowds or the revenue one might think. But it is well worth considering just the same.
Outdoor hockey could work at Gillette, and perhaps annually. The concept is loved by all, especially the players. It is now a New Year's Day staple. This is a way to get it into a more watchable venue, with better sight lines and more seats for rabid Bruin fans. Even more fun would be to get a warm weather city team to come up and play outdoors, though the players would probably be more acclimated to this sort of thing than fans in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas or Atlanta might realize.
Let it be known that the Bruins still live on here in this area, still beloved by all. With help from the Patriots, that love could be brought back to levels not seen since the early 1970s.
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