Hockey is the runt of major sports. The NHL has been around longer then the NFL, NBA, and NASCAR, but it’s nowhere near the juggernaut that they are. That’s what happens with a sport based on ice-skating, which remains a foreign concept to most Americans, like commuting to work by dogsled.
So you have to give the NHL a hand for yesterday’s Winter Classic between Chicago and Detroit at Wrigley Field. Apparently, teams play pro hockey games all the time each winter (Don’t worry, I had no idea either.) But this one game, an otherwise meaningless, midseason match-up, draws the biggest hockey audience of the year, bigger than the Stanley Cup (sorry, hockey-lingo for World Series).
A couple of years ago, the league realized it needed an event that would compel fans of teams that aren’t playing in the game to tune in as well as those of us who don’t follow hockey (My friends in Raleigh, N.C. swear that the city has an NHL team. Good one, guys).
League officials were inspired by the NFL, which managed to turn the Super Bowl into a national holiday. The NHL even hired a couple of former NHL executives, including John Collins, formerly the president of the Cleveland Browns and now the NHL’s COO.
Collins and company created a new New Year’s Day tradition from scratch, an outdoor hockey game. And yes, despite the fact that last year’s game, played on the Buffalo Bills’ field, was the first such event, they called it a classic just the same.
They’ve got the right idea. Yesterday I found myself flipping back and forth between college football and hockey for the first time. I couldn’t get enough of the weird sports juxtaposition at Wrigley. The players tapping their sticks on home plate as they emerged from the dugout. The debut of “Take Me Out to the Hockey Game” during the between-periods stretch. The Blackhawks jerseys in the bleachers. I even logged onto nhl.com to watch highlights of Detroit’s 6-4 win.
At some point, I suppose, the novelty of the venue will thaw. After playing hockey in football stadiums and ballparks a few times, what’s next, Central Park? Miami’s South Beach? It doesn’t matter. The key is trading a temperature-controlled arena for the unpredictable outdoors. That setting evokes the fun of a childhood pickup game. You don’t need to play hockey to appreciate that.