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NHL Can Save Its Season By Playing All Of Its Games Outdoors

The court for the NBA playoffs never looked interesting. It was bland and sterile like a practice facility and not the atmosphere fitting of the glitz of LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. You do what you can in a COVID world, but at one major sporting event after another, the feeling has been muted: the World Series, Masters, tennis U.S. Open, Stanley Cup, Kentucky Derby and even the NFL.

That’s just one of many reasons TV ratings in sports have crashed.

But the NHL has a real opportunity and doesn’t seem to recognize it. The league claims to be getting ready to start a season, but there is no evidence of that. It looks more like the NHL is thinking about taking a season off. So I’m here to help the NHL do what other leagues haven’t done, and that’s to not only survive COVID, but to excite fans and supercharge the sport. And to help stay safe from the virus. 

Here is the idea, and it’s starting to gain some traction: The NHL should play its entire season outdoors, or at least until a COVID vaccine starts reducing numbers dramatically. This is a sport with outdoor roots, and any time they put a game outdoors as a novelty act, it draws massive crowds and TV audiences.

For some reason, only a few teams are even considering this. So I went to an expert, Marc Ganis, president and founder of Chicago-based Sportscorp. He has advised NFL and MLB owners, among other major sports leagues, and is their go-to guy on business matters. He’s sometimes referred to as the 33rd owner in the NFL.

What does he think of the idea of the NHL playing its season outdoors?

“They’re great as one-off events, but are difficult for a variety of reasons,’’ Ganis said. “For one, it’s difficult to keep the ice in good condition when you have outdoor elements.

“That being said, I think it’s actually a very creative idea. I think it’s something that should be looked at. The idea is a very interesting one, but maybe as a hybrid.’’

By hybrid, Ganis said, it might be better to play some games outdoors in front of whatever-sized crowd local COVID laws allow, and other games indoors, theoretically without a crowd or with a small one.

The league had been saying that it would start the season on Jan. 1. Well,  tick, tock. If you assume some players might need two weeks to quarantine and then two more to practice, that would mean they’d need to arrive in their cities by roughly, well, let’s say dinner time today.

And so far, we’ve heard nothing, other than Commissioner Gary Bettman now calling Jan. 1 a “work in progress influenced largely by what we’re hearing from the medical experts.’’

“COVID is going through a second wave, which could be worse than the first wave,’’ Bettman said Wednesday at the Sports Business Journal’s “Dealmakers in Sports” panel. “And between Thanksgiving and the aftermath and what they think is going to happen for Christmas and the aftermath, we are taking our time and making sure that, as we look for ways to move forward, we’re focused on health and safety and doing the right thing.’’

Some hockey writers suggest openly that the league should skip this season and start up next fall.

Sure, if you want to bury your sport, take it out of the public consciousness, and anger the players and fans.

If the virus is actually holding things up, as Bettman said, then playing a contact sport with heavy breathing in a hockey-sized stadium — as opposed to a football stadium — is part of the problem. 

So outdoors is safer and more interesting. Meanwhile, last year the Associated Press talked with the NHL’s facilities operations people about the difficulties surrounding outdoor games. The league said that, as they’ve done more outdoor games, they’ve figured out technologies to make them work smoothly.

In January, the winter classic in Dallas drew 85,000 fans. It was between 55 and 60 degrees. A few years ago, an outdoor game in Ann Arbor drew 105,000, despite frigid temperatures. Of course, there would be crowd limits now, but the point is that, other than Olympic hockey, outdoor games are hockey’s best sellers.

“It’s difficult. It’s expensive,’’ Ganis said. “It’s far from optimal. But if we’ve learned anything from the NFL, it’s to keep playing the games. Adapt and adjust to whatever the conditions become. You’ve got to make the best with what you’ve got. But don’t stop the games.

“Gary Bettman’s determination and his focus on getting games played Jan. 1 is enormously important. That leadership is what gets everybody focused.’’

Ganis said a hard date gets people thinking about what they have to do rather than what they can’t do. 

Unfortunately, Bettman seems to be waffling on that date. 

“I like that (outdoor games) address one of the key factors of events in the COVID world,’’ Ganis said. “And that is crowded indoor events, whether they be a concert or a Thanksgiving dinner. It’s visually compelling on television, and it creates something special in this era where everything is dialed back or down. It creates something that is more of an event.’’

Run with it, NHL. Or rather, skate with it. That spotlight you’d put on your game is called the sun.

Written by Greg Couch

Greg earned the 2007 Peter Lisagor Award as the best sports columnist in the Chicagoland area for his work with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a college football writer in 1997 before becoming a general columnist in 2003. He also won a Lisagor in 2016 for his commentary in RollingStone.com and The Guardian.

Couch penned articles and columns for CNN.com/Bleacher Report, AOL Fanhouse, and The Sporting News and contributed as a writer and on-air analyst for FoxSports.com and Fox Sports 1 TV. In his journalistic roles, Couch has covered the grandest stages of tennis from Wimbledon to the Olympics, among numerous national and international sporting spectacles. He also won first place awards from the U.S. Tennis Writers Association for his event coverage and column writing on the sport in 2010.

6 Comments

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  1. Part of my enjoyment of the NHL is the elite skill level of the players. Yeah, I’m sure playing on an outdoor frozen pond is fun occasionally for the players, but I’ve found it mostly unwatchable on TV. The ice always sucks, so the puck is bouncing all over the place, and it really places the skill guys at a disadvantage. That’s just my opinion, but since I live nowhere near an NHL team, I can only really watch it on TV, and I’m just not interested in watching games on garbage ice. I thought the bubble playoffs were freakin’ awesome, and I think if they just played out the season in a handful of hub cities (48 games, and then an all-in playoff), I’d watch it every dang day.

  2. Having attended 3 mid winter classics, I can honestly say it is a ridiculous idea. I have never been as cold as I was at those events, and this was being geared up. Outside sporting events in January and February is not for most fans.

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