By: Ray Bourcier – Special to Montreal Hockey Talk
In sports, you have a bit more guarantees than you’d think. You have the guarantee to see Thanksgiving day football, you have the guarantee to see NBA on Christmas day and you have the guarantee to see the new(er) tradition of seeing the cash cow that has become the Winter Classic. Let me get this part out of the way before I continue. The Winter Classic is a cash cow; it’s meant to bring in a lot of money and a lot of press. It’s planned to try and maximize both revenue and “eyes” on the once College Football-dominated day. The Winter Classic is what it is. But, what if it could be more?
In Winter Classics past, very few matchups were true rivalry matchups. Sure, you have had a couple close ones as Pittsburgh vs. Washington, Detroit vs. Toronto. However, the 2016 matchup was THE rivalry when it comes to the NHL. For the first time in the history of the Winter Classic, you had two bitter rivals who have a long history of detest for the other both on the teams themselves, and even in the stands of Gillette stadium. As an attendee of the game itself, I can attest to witnessing some ugly and unacceptable instances of this rivalry spilling out into unacceptable behaviour which even saw one Habs fan being thrown down a set of cement stairs by a Bruins fan. Unacceptable behaviour aside, this rivalry game was the pinnacle for marquee rivalry match-ups in Winter Classic history. There was no love lost both in the games, and in the stands. However, having the ability to have 67 thousand enjoy this bitter rivalry live brought this love/ hate rivalry to a whole new level.
The game turned out to be more one sided than many fans had hoped, but everything surrounding this Winter Classic weekend screams ‘more’. There was something different about this, something that has not been seen in most of the previous match-ups. While the Bruins remained in hibernation for pretty much the entire game, it didn’t take long (about 8mins 42 seconds) for things to start to get chippy and dueling double minors were dished out after one of many skirmishes had erupted. This battle for first place could have been better in the sense that someone forgot to wake the Bruins up and tell them they had a game. That aside, the recipe is there for what the Winter Classic really needs in order to get over the ‘been there, done that’ mentality that is starting to plague the new years cash cow: rivalries.
If the NHL wants to start making Jan 1st mean something, get more eyes on the TV sets and get more recognition in the American media, then there’s no better way than making the Winter Classic be used to further push rivalries. Get rid of the ‘one off’ game just for the sake of bringing the game to new and different venues and start putting true rivalries into these games. On the Canadian side, there are no better rivalries than the Habs/Bruins, Leafs/Habs, Leafs/Sens, and even the battle of Alberta. On the American side, there are plenty of great rivalries that would also be great to see on these showcases, such as Chicago/St Louis, Detroit/Colorado just to name a few.
The Winter Classic has a lot of emphasis with the players, and based on the interviews I’ve seen over recent years, it’s the one game that no player wants to miss in the regular season. There has to be value in knowing that the players on your team have this game circled on their calendars, and knowing that this is one win they really want. While anticipation doesn’t always lend to effort on the ice, the disappointment and complete depression from the Bruins in post game interviews goes to show just how much a game like this means to the players (especially those who lay an egg in front of a home crowd). As an attendee to my first Winter Classic (but not my first Boston/ Montreal rivalry game), there was a huge difference in the quality of the rivalry in the stands and in/around the stadium. The chirping was real, and was intense. The rivalry spilled over and many voices were lost (including mine). The feeling that some 10 thousand Habs fans had in person, much to the dismay of the 57 thousand Bruins fans, just made it that much more sweet. As great as that was, imagine the intensity and excitement if the home team had been playing better and/ or would have won?
So rather than have the Winter Classic be just a stand-alone series that the NHL brings out every Jan 1st, why not make the game mean something and keep it to current rivalries? Showcase the intensity that the NHL game can bring when teams actually have something on the line: the thought of actually losing to your most hated rival. Showing both casual and hardcore fans the intensity of our game, and the love/ hate of our games best rivalries is what the Winter Classic should be about.