The NHL’s outdoor hockey season commences this week with the first of six games set for North America with one of the league’s newest traditions: the New Year’s Day Winter Classic.
More than 20,000 fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs are expected to cross the Ambassador Bridge from Windsor, Ont., into Detroit, then onward to Ann Arbor, Mich., to face the Detroit Red Wings at University of Michigan Stadium.
However, the blue-clad crowd will pale compared to 80,000 wearing red in the first outdoor game featuring teams from both Canada and the USA. The attendance will be in excess of 100K – take that, NFL stadiums – overshadowing the first outdoor affair from 1954, when the Wings meet the Marquette Pirates, an athletic club composed of inmates at Michigan’s Marquette Branch Prison.
The modern era of the NHL outdoors actually started here in Las Vegas, when the Los Angeles Kings hosts the New York Rangers in a preseason game from the parking lot of Caesars Palace in September 1991.
Since then, technology has evolved to the point where several games will be played in warm-weather venues, including a Freeway Series game between the Kings and Anaheim Ducks from Dodger Stadium in a few weeks on Jan. 25.
For the doomsayers claiming playing outdoors is just a gimmick, consider that nearly every team in the league wants to host a game, more than 350,000 tickets have been sold (almost all are already sellouts), and seven new corporate sponsors have signed on, meaning big bucks for owners and players. Plus, television rating continue to climb.
The bigger question may be: When will David Stern and the NBA follow a similar course, just like the NCAA does with the Final Four.
As for the game itself, the Red Wings already put in time on the outdoor rink at Comerica Park, the Tigers’ baseball stadium in downtown Detroit to prepare for possible snow, wind and cold. Toronto has not.
The Maple Leafs, until Sunday’s win over Carolina, had won just once (over lowly Buffalo) in regulation since mid-November – a span of 20 games.
The teams recently met in Toronto, with the Wings taking a 5-4 decision. Thus, the Wings will approach being a $2 favorite, yet is it worth it?
Since regular season games were moved outside with the first Heritage Classic at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium in 2002, the UNDER went 5-2, with the visiting team also winning five times in seven “outings.”
It should be fun to watch rather than the usual stable of boring college football bowl games, but my money will seek better opportunities.
The rest of this season’s outdoor slate includes four NHL Stadium Series contests. Following the SoCal affair, Yankee Stadium will twice host the New York Rangers, facing New Jersey (Jan. 26) and the N.Y. Islanders (Jan. 29).
Soldier Field in Chicago will display the Cup champion Blackhawks and the Pittsburgh Penguins on Mar. 1, capped by the third Heritage Classic coming the confines of domed B.C. Place in Vancouver, featuring the Canucks and Ottawa Senators on Mar. 2.
In addition, the New Year’s Day game for 2015 has been announced, with the Washington Capitals serving as the host team at a site to be determined.
Around the league
St. Louis: The Blues were the latest high-scoring team, going OVER at 8-2-1 in their last 11 until Alex Steen went down with a concussion. Next game was an UNDER, so the automatic St. Louis/OVER parlay is on hold until the left winger returns.
Colorado: I still have the impression that the Avs play the style of their opponents. If Patrick Roy’s gang plays a team that leans towards the OVER or the UNDER, just handicap the opponent and ignore the Avs. However, they just started a mammoth, 7-game home stand in Denver, so I am looking for OVER opportunities.
Islanders: The Nassau Coliseum boys have lost eight straight at home, with Chicago, Carolina and Dallas up next. Move to Brooklyn, now!
Carolina: With major injuries problems in Raleigh – the Canes have lost 8 of 9.
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