The NHL takes a lot of criticism about its outdoor games these days, largely in the form of "HEY YOU'RE DOING WAY TOO MANY OF THESE DAMN THINGS."
And you can see the point -- there were "only" three outdoor games in 2015, there will be four in 2016 and there were SIX in 2014. "The spectacle has worn off" is not an unpopular opinion.
For their part, Gary Bettman and the NHL don't really seem to care. They sell out all of these games and basically print money in ticket sales, concessions, merchandise and local interest. I've made the argument in the past that really, that's all that matters -- that these games aren't necessarily about the mass, national sports audience and they are more about the fanbases involved and, even more specifically, the people who are actually lucky enough to go to the games themselves. The league makes money and fans at the games enjoy them. Forget huge TV ratings.
But that can only sustain so long. The NHL is not a nationally beloved sport, and their teams and their rivalries only generate so much interest in the general sporting world. People love Olympic hockey and the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the competition, but that is not the appeal of the outdoor games. It's the scenery. The landscape. The snow globe effect. You want to feel like you're watching something cool or different or historic. That's why casual sports fans watch outdoor games.
Once you've seen one outdoor game in a generic NFL or MLB stadium, you've seen them all. The ratings show it -- the Winter Classic at the Big House in 2014 was the highest-rated Winter Classic ever, while the 2016 edition at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., was the lowest-rated. The league needs to do something about that if they really want these games to feel like the groundbreaking events they were when the first Winter Classic debuted in 2008.
So why not play these games in places that are different? If you want to fill out a stadium three times a year for the money, cool. Do that with the Stadium Series and nobody will bat an eyelash. But the Winter Classic, supposed to be the league's signature outdoor game, needs to be different. It needs to feel more important. Right now, it doesn't. You can't achieve that by changing the teams involved or the rules or the timing, but you can achieve it by getting fun with the location.
It's important to think outside the box with it, though. Between 2009 at Wrigley Field and 2010 at Fenway Park, we're already done with all the cool baseball stadiums. If you want the Winter Classic to last 50 more years, you're going to have to do more than just big stadiums.
That might mean sacrificing sight lines, or total attendance numbers, or both, but it would allow the NHL to create the kind of atmosphere that any sports fan will want to watch on TV. Places where people won't be able to look away. Places that are special.
With that in mind, here's a list of 18 venues that would be amazing, different places for the NHL to host its next outdoor game.
A NASCAR track: Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the largest sports venue in the world, and it can seat 257,325 people. Put a hockey rink on the track and play a game. Or put five rinks in the middle of the infield and play five games at once.
Any other huge NASCAR track would work too. Bristol Motor Speedway is about equidistant between the Nashville Predators and Carolina Hurricanes, and it seats 160,000 people. Charlotte Motor Speedway. A game at Daytona between the Panthers and Lightning. If you want to light Don Cherry's hair on fire, you put a hockey game in a NASCAR track between two sunbelt teams and you print that SEC money.
Lambeau Field: The problem with putting NHL games in NFL or MLB stadiums is that they are basically all the same. Aside from Wrigley Field or Fenway Park, all of these stadiums are pretty boring -- they might have their little quirks but they do not have any true character. Pittsburgh's Heinz Field might as well be the same place as New England's Gillette Stadium or Chicago's Soldier Field, for all intents and purposes -- particularly for people who are not from Pittsburgh or New England or Chicago.
What's the one NFL stadium that has some gravitas, though? Green Bay's Lambeau Field. The Frozen Tundra. It's almost too perfect. Do it.
Penn State's Beaver Stadium: Pennsylvania hockey fans have been clamoring for this since the first outdoor game. There's a lot of talk about why it didn't work out -- Penn State was too greedy being the chief rumor -- but if the NHL can find a way to make this work, they must. Penguins, Flyers, outside at the second-largest stadium in the country at their state's top university. I really hope this happens someday. It's the ultimate Battle of Pennsylvania.
Our national landmarks
Rideau Canal: Ottawa's famed canal is already one of the country's most popular outdoor skating rinks in the winter months. Find a way to make the ice safe and playable, carve out a regulation rink by putting up some boards, let fans pile up on the banks and play a hockey game.
The National Mall: There was talk of this back before the Washington Capitals hosted the 2014 Winter Classic at Nationals Park, and this is where the NHL would really have to do some clever thinking. Can you sell 40,000 tickets to a game on the National Mall? No, of course not. You can't construct that much temporary seating.
But will you maximize the national television audience by putting a hockey rink in the middle of the mall in the shadow of the United States Capitol and Washington Monument? Of course you will. It'd be the coolest event ever held on the Mall, and we inaugurate presidents there.
Parliament Hill in Ottawa: The same thing applies here. Pop a rink on the lawn in front of Canada's Parliament building and play a game. The Russians played a game in Moscow's Red Square, so we basically have to do this to keep Canada's national pride intact.
Hoover Dam: I don't know if the top of the Hoover Dam is wide enough to fit a hockey rink, and you certainly couldn't get a lot of fans up there. But if a future Las Vegas expansion team played a game on top of one of America's great marvels of engineering, I'd watch it. You'd watch it. The helicopter shots, you guys. Think about it.
Central Park: 800,000 people reportedly packed into Central Park for a 1986 concert by the New York Philharmonic. I'm just saying. Islanders-Rangers. Hockey rink in the middle with some temporary bleachers, and screens everywhere so people can see the action if they don't get a seat. Keep the rink open for a week before and after the game and let the entire city skate on it for five bucks an hour.
Times Square: This is probably never going to happen because New Year's Eve is the only thing that can shut down Times Square. But I'm putting it on the list anyway.
The great outdoors
The Alaskan wilderness -- or on a pond, Mystery, Alaska style: Go somewhere in the middle of the woods, or actually to a small town like the one depicted in the 90s movie Mystery, Alaska, and build a rink. You don't need to fill it with 20,000 people. Just the idea of playing a game outside in a small town in the middle of the dang woods -- whether it's on a real pond or on a rink the league creates -- will be enough to generate interest.
Lake Louise in Alberta's Banff National Park: I'm just gonna let the picture do the talking on that one. Alternatively, Curry Village Ice Rink in Yosemite National Park. They already have the boards set up!
Literally on a beach: Remember Pro Beach Hockey? Yeah, this would be hard because there's a climate and all, but if you can play a hockey game in the Vegas desert you can probably figure out a way to play a game on the beach in Santa Monica or Fort Lauderdale or wherever.
This backyard family rink in Michigan: Back in 2013 we interviewed the family that created this utopia. What if they played an NHL game there?
Other great sports landmarks
Old Trafford: The home of Manchester United, the 100+-year-old soccer stadium is one of the largest in England and would be guaranteed to give the NHL an international audience on a completely unique stage for the sport.
Centre Court, Wimbledon: It seats 15,000, all of whom would have a pretty intimate view of a rink that'd be jammed inside the historic venue.
Boylston Street in Boston, at the finish line of the Boston Marathon: This is the biggest, most important annual sporting event in one of America's great sports cities, and if you want to take street hockey to an entirely different level, throw an ice hockey rink in the middle of Boylston Street. Line the center ice red line up with the actual finish line that's painted on the street, squeeze in as many temporary bleachers as you can, and let the rest watch on the tops of buildings and on big screens in nearby Copley Square.
It wouldn't be the largest crowd to ever watch a hockey game, but it'd be one of the coolest venues to ever host one.
Churchill Downs: 120,000 can pack into Kentucky's famed horse racing track. Mint juleps and big hats and hockey, please.
Augusta National Golf Club: I know the Thrashers aren't around anymore, but the Masters is the world's most famous golf tournament, and Augusta is the world's most famous course. I know the club is famously inclusive in some pretty terrible ways, so maybe they wouldn't let this happen.
But if you could get a deal done, what about a hockey rink at Amen Corner?
Add yours in the comments.