There’s this prominent feeling among serious hockey fans and journalists that it’s not cool to like the Winter Classic. It’s a spectacle in a sport that prides itself on not making spectacles; an event that is plastered with advertisements and stinks of capitalism.
There are plenty of reasons for the more jaded hockey fans to hate the New Year’s Day game. Here’s the thing though. It doesn’t matter if people who are already hockey fans love the Winter Classic. In a strange way, the yearly outdoor contest isn’t for people who are already diehard devotees.
It’s for people who perhaps don’t understand what the game of hockey is all about. If you’ve grown up following the sport, then you already know that most high-end NHL players more or less come from the same place. Skating circles on a lonely, quiet and serene frozen pond while taking shots at garbage cans until the feet go numb. That connectivity is one of the things that unites fans across the globe. It’s why the “have you even played?” argument is leveled against just about any journalist that writes about taking fighting out of the game.
Because it’s important. Understanding the roots of hockey is a necessity for hockey fans. So for folks that already know what hockey is all about—parents driving their kids 437 miles to play in a tournament, the terrible vending machine coffee and the echos of pucks rimming around the boards at 5 in the morning—the Winter Classic isn’t impressive or needed. It’s in all of our DNA. If you grew up playing, you grew up living in a Winter Classic environment. It is something that we all lived, day in and day out.
Some people weren’t introduced to the game though, and that’s OK. Some people are lucky enough to be born into hockey, but this isn’t the exclusive fraternity that some elitists want it to be. This truly is everyone’s game. There are efforts across Canada and the United States to make sure that everyone knows they’re welcome here. If they can’t afford equipment, there are various ways to acquire the gear.
More than 42,000 people attended the 2015 Classic between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Washington Capitals. All told, more than 413,000 people have seen a Winter Classic game since 2008. That’s roughly the same number of people who live in Miami, Florida and they’ve all taken in the game of hockey in its purest form.
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) January 1, 2015
Sure there are ads everywhere you look, but people who didn’t care about hockey on January 31 suddenly became lifelong fans on January 1. Maybe the next Mark Messier or Mario Lemieux picked up a stick and put on skates because they witnessed Troy Brouwer score a game-winning goal against his old team in the middle of a professional baseball stadium.
Everyone has their moment. A small slice of time where they were exposed to hockey and they never looked back. It varies from person to person, but every individual fan has been touched by something just special enough to turn them into a lifelong fan. The Winter Classic has been the moment for thousands of people, and that’s invaluable in a way that is hard to express.
A few years from now there’s going to be an outstanding prospect; a teenager that is taking the hockey world by storm like Connor McDavid has or Nathan MacKinnon did. A reporter is going to stick a microphone in his face after a game one night and ask him when he started playing hockey.
And he’ll answer “after the 2009 Winter Classic between the Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings.”
In that moment, the true value of this yearly contest will be revealed. It’s cool to be cynical and snarky these days. It’s easy to hide behind a Twitter handle and bash an event from the safe distance of your couch. For people who are at the WInter Classic and are experiencing hockey for the first time though, it’s an important and special moment in their lives—One they’ll never forget. Maybe they’ll pick up a stick and start playing and maybe they’ll never think about the game again. This highly visible contest forces them to make that active choice, and no game on Earth is better live than hockey.
By and large, that’s what the Winter Classic is about. It’s not a game for you, and it’s not a game for the established hockey fan. It’s about exposing people to hockey in a pure form, and that’s bigger than anyone’s desire to look edgy on social media or in print.