When the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres face off at Citi Field (Home of the New York Mets) in Queens on January 1, 2018, not only will the game be the 10th rendition of the spectacle but, as always, it will serve as a symbol of the passion and excitement that drive the youth of many a nation to lace up skates and take to the ice.
Born from hockey’s history of outdoor play, to many a player and coach, the Winter Classic is an amalgamation of childhood memories: “I grew up in Northern Manitoba and we played on an outdoor rink,” said Mike Babcock, current head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. “I remember missing our playoffs because the rink melted one year. That’s all I did was play outdoors until I was around 11 or 12. Even when I was in Saskatoon, my school had a rink and we played outdoors everyday at recess.”
“Each and every guy always remembers back to those days [of playing outdoors] because they were so much fun – probably because if you won it was no different than if you lost.” quoted NHL legend Wayne Gretzky: “It was over and done with and you got ready for the next game the next day.”
The game means so much more to the players on the teams that participate in it. It celebrates the humble beginnings and pure competitive spirit from which the game was created, while also being among the most highly watched ice hockey matches; national broadcasts from NBC reach millions of viewers. The 2009 Winter Classic between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings set a viewership record in the USA, becoming the most watched hockey game in 33 years.
Due to NBC’s broadcasting rights for the event, and its placement on New Year’s Day, the event attracts casual watchers, and the hope for the event was and is that it helps increase the popularity of hockey. However, viewership has decreased steadily since 2014, and the only evidence to suggest it has made hockey more popular is that the 2017 Stanley Cup Finals was the most watched finals since ratings were recorded (with over four million viewers). This, however, could simply be coincidental.
Despite declining ratings, it is clear that the Winter Classic has increased ice hockey’s foothold in the yearly sports schedule. Dan Shaughnessy of Sports Illustrated once said of the Winter Classic that now: “Hockey owns New Year’s Day the way baseball owns the Fourth of July and football owns Thanksgiving.”
Although hockey is not nearly as popular in North America as (American) football or basketball, hockey has certainly cemented itself as a staple of sporting viewership to the casual fan in the 21st century, and to those who are passionate about hockey, the Winter Classic is a gift, a love letter to the origins of the game we love.
Image Courtesy of GoonSquadSarah