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Is it too late for the NHL to save the outdoor game concept?

On Sunday afternoon, the Winnipeg Jets hosted the Edmonton Oilers in the latest edition of the NHL Heritage Classic.

If you include the September 1991 exhibition game between the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings in Las Vegas, Sunday’s tilt was the 19th outdoor game in NHL history.

After a 12-year hiatus between the Vegas exhibition and the first regular season outdoor game in November 2003 between Montreal and Edmonton, momentum for an encore built up, and just over four years later it happened

The Penguins and Sabres met at Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium for the first Winter Classic, which proved to be a smashing success at the box office with over 71,000 fans in attendance and a record number of fans watching on TV as Sidney Crosby scored the shootout-winning goal in a game that looked like it was being played in a snow globe.

 

After years of searching for a signature event, something Commissioner Gary Bettman could hang on the mantle alongside events like the MLB All-Star Game or the NFL’s games in London, it appeared he had finally found it. But ticket demand remained brisk and fans were willing to pay a premium to travel for the unique experience of hockey in venues like Wrigley Field and Fenway Park.

Suddenly, it appeared Bettman struck gold and the league had created more than just a signature event, but a marquee, destination event that could be placed alongside the Super Bowl or the NCAA Final Four.

Following the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season where the 2013 Winter Classic was wiped out, the NHL returned the following year with a whopping six outdoor games over the course of the 2013-14 season.

The bloated slate included the usual New Year’s Day tilt, which was played in front of over 105,000 fans at Michigan Stadium and the first regular season “warm weather” outdoor game at Dodger Stadium. But it also included two games at Yankee Stadium, including one on a weeknight, a game at Chicago’s Soldier Field, the second time the Blackhawks had hosted an outdoor game, and another edition of the Heritage Classic, this time in Vancouver.

Suddenly, some were starting to wonder if the NHL was starting to go to the well a little too much. If too much of a good thing was really, in turn, becoming a bad thing.

Since that season, there’s been another six outdoor games, with three of those coming last season and the sixth taking place this past Sunday.

After the conclusion of the 2016-17 season, the NHL will have hosted another three outdoor extravaganzas, which would mean they will have hosted seven outdoor games since the beginning of last season.

After last season’s game in Minnesota that featured the Blackhawks (for the fourth time), a local writer in Chicago lamented that the outdoor affairs had become “stale” and said the event was a “dog jumping the shark.”

And that might’ve been the case this past Sunday. While there was certainly excitement in the city of Winnipeg in the days leading up the game, and surely a buzz in and around Investors Group Field on game day, on TV the whole scene had a tinge of ‘been there, done that’.

Maybe it was the fact that the game was played early in the season versus late in the year when the points mean more. Maybe it was because the stadium didn’t sound very loud (likely due to low ambient microphones), but those scenes on TV of players gliding through the breeze under a late-afternoon sky just didn’t elicit the type of reaction they did even just five outdoor games ago, which was the 2015 Winter Classic.

After the conclusion of this season just seven teams will have not participated in an outdoor game (Arizona, Carolina, Columbus, Dallas, Florida, Nashville and Tampa Bay).

In other words, the league has had one in most of their markets and there’s already talks about where this will all go next. Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet said over the weekend that the league is looking at the United States Military Academy and Notre Dame Stadium as potential future sites.

In the meanwhile, the fans can only hope that the experience hasn’t completely lost it’s luster by the time their team gets to play in it for the first time… or the fifth.

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