Twice in my lifetime, a National Hockey League team has absconded from Atlanta for the sport’s native environs in Canada.
When the beloved Atlanta Flames — and they will always remain beloved to me, for they were a team of my youth — headed to Calgary, I paid little attention to the NHL for at least a decade or more. There were few games on television then, years before the league made another push into the Sun Belt.
But when the Atlanta Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg in 2011, I still had a reason to watch at least one game.
That game has been the Winter Classic, an outdoor spectacle begun in 2007 and played around New Year’s Day, usually at a football or baseball stadium. Instead of watching run-of-the-mill bowl games, I prepared a New Year’s champagne brunch and switched on what for most of us in America remains a novelty sport.
The staging of this event was one of the most brilliant moves ever made by the NHL, a welcome addition two years after the cancellation of an entire season due to labor strife. Hockey purists, especially in Canada, derided it. But they didn’t understand the importance of drawing football-saturated American eyeballs as a gateway to becoming more serious fans.
What I liked the best about the Winter Classic was how it showcased a sports culture from northern climates with which I’m unfamiliar. Outdoor hockey is a staple of Canadian, New England and upper Midwestern sports culture, as well as the northern European nations that have produced so many top NHL players.
The features on recreational players in the Snow Belt, for example, helped me better understand the game’s appeal to people who are untroubled that hockey doesn’t translate well to television. They’ve got the game in their blood, beyond the spectator version.
The Winter Classic probably won’t ever make me a red-blooded fan. I will watch an occasional game that the fabulous Doc Emrick calls, including most of the Stanley Cup finals, but the genius of having that one game on the schedule has done wonders for the image of the NHL and the sport.
So it’s not a surprise to see the grieving that’s been taking place this week as the NHL is likely to cancel the 2013 Winter Classic, possibly today. Because of the ongoing lockout, with games called off through November, the New Year’s Day game in The Big House in Ann Arbor is endangered. Even the media consternation from Canada has been sharp. The Detroit Red Wings were to play host to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the first time the Winter Classic has involved a Canadian team.
Scratching off this game — a healthy scratch, if you will — would undo many of the positive benefits that the Winter Classic has yielded, from a business and fan standpoint. According to Jeff Gordon of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
“The impact of this latest player lockout will be profound. The fan base will erode dramatically in many markets.
“Some owners will opt out of the business. A team or two could move. Dozens of players will see their careers end. Others may opt to remain in Europe, where the leagues run without interruption.
“Much of the progress made since the last lockout will be lost.
“Hockey will remain a fringe sport in this country, well out of the mainstream. The NHL will remain a sad example of how not to run a professional sport.”
If there hadn’t been that previous lockout, I’d say those words were overreaching.
But perhaps because I’m in a city without hockey, it’s especially sad to see the top echelons of the sport unravel before our eyes, once again.
It’s tough enough to lose teams in your town. But to watch a league flirt with self-destruction for the second time in seven years is a tragedy.
An avoidable, but a seemingly inevitable, tragedy.