Winter Classic 2012: NHL Needs To Find Consistency With Start Time

The NHL can't control the weather, but after two years of altered start times at the Winter Classic, they need more consistency if they expect the event to grow.

After the NHL moved Saturday's Winter Classic Alumni Game back two hours to 3 p.m. Eastern, it seemed a foregone conclusion this would happen.

The NHL made it official Sunday afternoon, announcing this year's Winter Classic would be moved back two hours to 3 p.m. ET, just like the alumni outing was a day prior.

(And if you are turned off by the idea of old guys playing hockey, you really missed out. The Alumni Game was much more enjoyable than something like that sounds like it ever could be.)

This comes one year after the league was forced to delay the Classic some seven hours because of a rainy forecast in Pittsburgh. The move didn't hurt ratings much, as the game did well in prime time (well enough that I thought the league would consider making that a permanent part of the event). However, that doesn't mean it's a good idea to shift the start time of a signature event like the Winter Classic with barely 24 hours notice.

In fact, it's a terrible idea.

Last week, NHL COO John Collins made it abundantly clear that the Winter Classic is a huge event in the NHL's eyes, likening it to the Super Bowl when he said people don't cancel their Super Bowl party because of who is playing in the game. That was in response to a question about future Classics, which will likely involve teams not on the NHL's fictional list of "teams that draw a lot of eyeballs by name recognition alone."

Well, the NFL isn't known for announcing two-hour delays in the Super Bowl kickoff with 24 hours notice. I'm not saying it would adversely affect the game's rating, but it certainly isn't going to help. It's appointment viewing, and in the case of a major event like this, the appointment is set weeks -- or even months -- in advance.

If the NHL wants hockey fans to watch the Winter Classic no matter who is playing in the game, it would probably help if the start time wasn't changed on such short notice.

There is no blame to be assessed here. You can't control the weather. Direct sunshine and above-freezing temperatures were not going to be conducive to good hockey. By waiting two hours, the NHL avoids the sun beating right on the ice, and the weather will be cooler by then. Those two factors should make for good ice and a fun hockey game.

This isn't an argument against moving the game. It's an argument for working with NBC and CBC and making this a late-afternoon or night game going forward.

I'm not naive enough to think the NHL deserves a prime-time slot on New Year's Day in the United States. I get the bit. However, the league does need to look at its own best interests, and for the 40,000 or so fans who will pay to see future Classics, it's not convenient to look at 24 hours notice on a game time change.

It's happened back-to-back years now, and the league needs to accept that it's likely to happen again, unless something is done about the 1 p.m. ET start time. Push it back two or three hours permanently, or just make it a night game and be done with it.

Anyone who has been a party to outdoor hockey at night knows this is not an unattractive scenario for the sport. But there is much more flexibility in the start time if you set it earlier in the day. Picking a mid-afternoon time gives the NHL fewer options, but hopefully avoids at least the troubles that can be caused by the sun.

Yes, there could still be years where the weather forecast simply doesn't allow for the event to be played at its scheduled time. But those years should be few and far between, not annual.

For more on this year's Winter Classic, head over to SB Nation's Rangers blog Blueshirt Banter and Flyers blog Broad Street Hockey. For everything Winter Classic in the build-up to the game, head over to our NHL Winter Classic StoryStream.

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