NHL Winter Classic is great, but changes might be needed

One of the best, most recent New Year’s Day traditions has to be the NHL’s Winter Classic.

Started in 2008 when the Buffalo Sabres hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Bills’ Ralph Lauren Stadium, the Winter Classic has been a staple in the New Year’s Day lineup that is dominated solely by college football. So far, it’s been greeted nicely by the casual fans as well as hockey fans as it’s sort of a throwback to the days when the players were kids playing outdoors on the frozen pond.

Unfortunately, this year fell a little bit on hard times. Despite the fact that this was a good close game that saw the Chicago Blackhawks claw back from a 2-0 deficit only for the Washington Capitals “walk-off” with a goal with only 13 seconds left in the game to win 3-2, the game only attracted a 2.3 overnight rating in major markets for NBC, the lowest of all of the previous Winter Classic.

So now comes the question of what should happen with the NHL Winter Classic.

I’m not so sure that there are many changes needed for this game. The low rating isn’t exactly the fault of NHL or hockey in general. Instead, it has to do more with the renewed emphasis of New Year’s Day bowl games by college football. With the Cotton Bowl moved back to it’s traditional Jan. 1 date, more eyeballs were on that game as Michigan State came back to beat Baylor and then there was the Outback Bowl that went into overtime and the Citrus Bowl was competitive as well. And considering that New Year’s Day has been the day for college football seemingly since the beginning of time, it’s always going to be tough going up against that competition.

And then there’s the fact that Nationals Park isn’t exactly an iconic stadium to play the game in. The Winter Classic has been played in The Big House (Michigan Stadium), Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, and it’s no surprise that those are some of the highest ranking games in terms of television ratings in its brief history. I know that Washington has the U.S. Capitol and the White House and the Washington Monument among others, but Nationals Park is a relatively new stadium and it doesn’t have near the history that those other stadiums do and thus not really attracting casual fans to watch the game just for the sight of a hockey game being played at a legendary stadium.

But at the same time, this one bad game for ratings is just a blip in some sense. Last year’s game was the best with a 2.9 national rating, the best all-time for the Winter Classic and the highest for an NHL regular season game. So this drop off very well could be a temporary downturn with a rebound coming next year, especially if it’s a big match at, say Yankee Stadium, or something along those lines.

Still, if the NHL feels the need to make a change, it probably should go with picking better stadiums/match ups or possibly moving the date and/or time to get away from college football to see if that might help.

However, the best move for the NHL and the Winter Classic is to keep the course for the game and not change anything. If next, year is the same or worse, then changes will be needed.

But for now, the Winter Classic, with it being a good game and event, doesn’t need any drastic changes for next year.