Thursday, September 25, 2008

Outdoor games: Capture the spirit of the thing, then suck the life out of it

Pssst: The Twins are interested in having an outdoor NHL game at 40,000-seat Target Field, which will open in 2010, and will have representatives at 39,345-seat Wrigley Field on Jan. 1 for the Chicago Blackhawks-Detroit Red Wings outdoor game.
One outdoor game is okay. Ten fewer games on the NHL schedule would be better.

The first time the NHL held an outdoor regular-season game in 2003 in Edmonton, it was great, awesome, pastoral, picturesque, the whole megillah. The cold corporateness of the NHL, for once, was opened up something homey and spontaneous (well, except for when Sean Majumder from 22 Minutes crashed a group photo.)

The NHL has seldom been able to resist overdoing it with a good idea. Another downside is this is almost a tacit admission that the league can never hope to sustain media attention in the States, but only for the occasional sideshow. It breaks up the monotony of the season, if only briefly.

An outdoor game every year would not be so bad. Back in '03, the second-day thought, of course, went along the lines of Krusty the Clown saying, "Wow! They'll never let us do that again, never in a million years!" This might be a sad commentary on how hockey fans have Stockholm Syndromed themselves. They count on the NHL to be complete killjoys.* Nothing should ever be allowed to violate the sanctity of the 82-game NHL schedule, except for the Olympics every four years.

The desire to limit the number of outdoor games might have come from a desire not to see such a spectacle become cliché. All it would take was one player suffering a season-ending injury in an outdoor game for agents and hockey writers to start decrying the whole idea. One theory which you can disregard is that hockey fans count on the NHL to be killjoys.

It's not as odd as it seems. The hockey mindset first took form in places such as Ontario and New England, where puritannical types ruled the roast for generations. Ontario is not that far removed from the 12 a.m. last call and the days when liquor stores didn't actually put the bottles on the shelves, for fear of inciting anarchy and moral turpitude? (Case in point: the UFC can't get licensed in the province.)

There was too much of Someone Somewhere Might Be Having Fun. That definitely exists. A larger point is that the outdoor game is right in Gary Bettman's wheelhouse. It gets non-hockey fans paying attention and it throws a bone to the base he's mostly ignored for the past 15 years.

Granted, with climate change, the NHL has a very limited window for holding outdoor games. One short-term remedy is another team in Canada. Don't hold your breath.

(Other, better true hockey sites such as Mirtle and Puck Daddy will pick up on this as soon as they are able.)