Why the NHL’s Lake Tahoe series is a risk — and where the next fanless outdoor games could be played


What a lot of people don’t realize about the first NHL Winter Classic is that it very well could have been the last NHL Winter Classic.

We remember Sidney Crosby scoring the game-winning goal on New Year’s Day in 2008, in front of a raucous and frozen stadium crowd in Buffalo in a game that looked like it was being played inside a snow globe.

We remember that game between the Penguins and Sabres sparking the NHL’s new era of outdoor games, which has spanned from Fenway Park to the Cotton Bowl to Dodger Stadium. We remember it as the moment when the NHL, still reeling from its canceled lockout season in 2004-05, showed it could transcend its niche status, plant its flag on a day meant for college football and draw a stadium’s worth of fans to watch a regular-season hockey game.

What we don’t really remember from that game: the risk.

The risk that the gameplay could be more atrocious than it was. The risk that a player could suffer a significant injury due to the unwieldy conditions. That no one, from fans to sponsors, would actually care enough about the outdoor game gimmick to want a second edition.

“If minor things had been different — the weather maybe two or three degrees warmer than it was — maybe the Winter Classic goes away,” recalled Bill Daly to Sports Business Journal.

Instead, 11 more Winter Classic games and 19 other outdoor games would follow, including this weekend’s NHL games at Lake Tahoe, pitting the Colorado Avalanche against the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday and the Philadelphia Flyers against the Boston Bruins on Sunday.

These games are like nothing the NHL has attempted before: outdoor games played without fans in attendance, whose success is completely reliant on the quality of the game itself and the landscape (and waterscape) around the rink.

It’s hockey as it was meant to be played, on a “frozen pond” in the middle of a winter vista. But there’s no stadium sell-out crowd buying $30 hats. There’s no sponsor-filled village of booths and kiosks around the venue.

The Lake Tahoe games are either going to rewrite the rules of the league’s outdoor game strategy or they’re going to be a one-and-done pandemic curio. Essentially, this is another “Winter Classic moment” for the NHL.

“There’s no commitment beyond this year, but if it’s super successful, I think it would be absolutely considered and added to what we’re doing with outdoor games,” NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer told ESPN recently. “The Mall in Washington. Central Park. Mount Rushmore. Imagine all the games with those backdrops.”

Once you start dreaming about these things, you can’t stop. I actually went to Google Earth to start poking around Mount Rushmore National Memorial, to see where the Chicago Blackhawks — I mean, it’s an outdoor game; you don’t expect the league to invite a different team, do you? — might play.

There’s a parking garage with a roof deck that’s intriguing …

The NHL’s first idea of a no-fan outdoor game this season was to stage a game at Lake Louise in Alberta, which would have offered a stunning Rocky Mountain backdrop. After preliminary talks, it became clear there were several challenges facing that event, from lack of available infrastructure to limited sponsorship inside a federally owned park. Those obstacles could have been overcome with a bit more runway before the season, and without COVID-19 pandemic protocols in Canada complicating matters.

But there was still a strong desire to hold a game in a remote venue, in a season where most games will be played without fans in attendance. “It’s something we’ve always wanted to do, and there’s no better time to do it than now,” said Mayer. “Let’s try to figure this out. We come up with the right place and the right venue; could we do it?”

When it was determined that Lake Tahoe was the right place, the NHL had a two-month scramble to make the event happen. It didn’t have time for the usual amount of site visits before an outdoor game. Meetings that would have been face-to-face became Zoom affairs. They had to build out enough infrastructure for the teams and league staff, as well as the rink itself — on what is usually the 18th hole of a golf course.

Let’s take a moment to recall Avalanche forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare‘s utter disappointment that the games weren’t actually going to be played on Lake Tahoe:

The NHL usually has to build out much more infrastructure for outdoor games, including their fan engagement areas around the venues. But no fans in Lake Tahoe means no fan engagement.

“When we go to do one of our outdoor games, it’s a weeklong event. We do a lot of sponsorship activations around the event. But our sponsors here — Bridgestone and Honda — think the event itself speaks for itself. You’ll see elements within the broadcast that speak to those brands and others,” said Mayer. “Remember: There is no revenue coming in from ticket sales. It is a bit different.”

This is the essential question about these remote outdoor games, if they are to continue: How to make enough money to make these experiments worth it to the NHL.

The NHL is a gate-revenue-reliant league, which is why it’s taking a financial bath this season without fans in arenas. Gary Bettman infamously said before the season that “the magnitude of the loss starts with a ‘B,'” as in “billion.” The Winter Classic can be a cash cow: The 2014 edition at Michigan Stadium brought in over $20 million in profit (from all sources, according to Sports Business Daily). An outdoor game without fans in attendance is a revenue-challenged one.

Can the games earn enough sponsorship without on-site activations? Will the ratings support a TV revenue boost? Will fans buy gear for a game that none of them can attend, as Shop NHL has a litany of Tahoe-related items on sale?

“It’s not about making money. It’s about not losing money,” said Mayer.

As they discovered at Lake Louise, sponsorship opportunities can be limited by location.

“There are ways at landmarks, or adjacent to landmarks, where you could work with the government and try to get things done,” said Mayer. “But how I see this growing is that it’s not lakes and mountains every time.”

That includes places like the National Mall and Central Park, which have been dream locales for NHL outdoor games since the puck first dropped outside in Buffalo 13 years ago. For now, they’re dreams deferred to a safer date.

“Those are possibilities in non-pandemic years. You couldn’t do a game in a public place with the public wanting to go [right now],” said Mayer. “We couldn’t do anything that remotely put us in a position where we’re telling fans to go away, when there’s like 20 million people waiting to get in.”

The NHL wouldn’t mind that kind of ravenous fan reaction to an outdoor game in 2021. The most recent Winter Classic, pitting the Nashville Predators against the Dallas Stars at the Cotton Bowl, was the lowest rated and least viewed edition of the event. The audience has declined year over year in five of the past six seasons for the outdoor game.

One possible culprit is homogeneity of venues. While the 2019 Notre Dame Stadium game had the benefit of Chicago and Boston pumping up the audience, it was also the most unique location for the Winter Classic since the Michigan Stadium game in 2014. Fans have seen plenty of cookie-cutter football stadiums host these games. After Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium and Dodger Stadium, to what other baseball stadium does an NHL outdoor game really have to go?

You know what fans haven’t seen? Lake Tahoe. The National Mall. Central Park. Yosemite. Yellowstone. The Grand Canyon. Glacier National Park. Rideau Canal. Lake Louise. Somewhere in the Yukon. Iceland. Patagonia.

Anywhere else with a picturesque view, unique environment and room for a rink. Think big.

The greatest thing about the Winter Classic was the sudden realization that the NHL didn’t have to be confined to the same 30-odd arenas each season. The Lake Tahoe games, if successful, expand that horizon to a panoramic view.

“The first time they did the Winter Classic, it was ‘let’s give this a try.’ If it was a disaster, if it didn’t work out well, would they have done Year 2? I don’t think they made a commitment for anything past Buffalo that first year,” said Mayer. “Has a decision been made moving forward? No. But if this is successful, it opens up the possibility.”

1. Katie Strang’s piece on the Coyotes was the talk of the hockey world this week. For me, it filled in a blank.

Ever since Alex Meruelo took control of the franchise in July 2019, every problem the Coyotes had — from missed payments to internal personnel issues — was explained away by the team as the new regime’s inexperience as NHL owners. “They’re people that are open to learning and investing [in] the NHL,” was the way GM Bill Armstrong described them.

But after reading the article, it’s clear that Meruelo isn’t just a casino and radio station owner leaning how to govern a hockey team, but a casino and radio station owner applying the tactics from that world to NHL ownership. The nickel and diming. The strong-arming vendors. The cutting of expenses down to the amount of napkins employees use.

Hockey fans have long wanted more “non-hockey people” involved in the NHL to break up the old boys network. Alex Meruelo is as “non-traditional” an owner as they come. There’s no excuse for the unprofessional incidents chronicled in the story. But a businessman going from one world and then navigating the NHL, where his tactics aren’t commonplace, may be an explanation for the state of the Coyotes.

2. I think Bill Armstrong is a talented front-office executive whose team-building acumen will ultimately benefit the Arizona Coyotes franchise. I also think he was completely, utterly and embarrassingly wrong in his approach to Strang’s reporting. “After delivering a lecture on journalism ethics, Armstrong asked this reporter what she thought would happen if he were to tell general managers around the league how she did her job,” she wrote.

Those general managers know how Katie Strang does her job. So does Gary Bettman and Bill Daly. So do all the survivors of physical and sexual abuse whom she has championed through her writing, and the organizations from USA Hockey to the New York Mets to whom she has spoken truth to power. A first-year general manager pulling rank on journalism ethics with a reporter as respected as Strang is like the Arizona Coyotes lecturing the Montreal Canadiens on how to properly hang championship banners.

3. Obviously, the Coyotes story was the talk of the NHL offices. The league knew its publication was imminent but didn’t know what accusations and dirty laundry the article would ultimately contain. I’ve been told it was prepared for something even more damaging than the article that was published, which is a credit to Strang’s reputation as a news-breaker. I get the sense that the league is relieved it wasn’t worse. Well, at least until the Coyotes made it worse with that ridiculous press release they dropped, a study in the Streisand effect if there ever was one.

Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Florida Panthers

I, for one, welcome our new hockey overlords. The Cats’ win over Carolina on Wednesday night put them in first place in the Central Division in both points (tied with Chicago) and points percentage. Don’t look now, but Jonathan Huberdeau might be entering Hart Trophy race territory.

Loser: Nashville Predators

The Predators are now 10 points off the division lead and nine points out of the final playoff seed in the Central. Their .400 points percentage puts them one Detroit Red Wings win away from the basement. I did a couple of radio shows in Nashville this week. The entire conversation centered around breaking up the team and firing both the coach and the general manager. It has been quite a while since things have been this out of tune in Nashville.

Winner: Caring about those we’ve lost

The Buffalo Sabres are so bad that a fan asked whether he could remove the cardboard cutout of his deceased aunt from the arena so she no longer had to watch the team. That’s somehow both the most considerate and savage thing we’ve ever read.

Loser: Taylor Hall

After six points in his first three games in Buffalo, Hall has three points in his subsequent nine games, along with a minus-10. He’s not skating with Jack Eichel anymore, either. One assumes he’ll be wearing a new uniform before the trade deadline. But hey, at least the checks clear.

Winner: Marc-Andre Fleury

Flower is 7-2-0 with a .937 save percentage, a 1.56 goals-against average and thousands of Penguins fans fantasizing about GM Ron Hextall bringing Fleury home as their goaltending savior. Alas, we imagine the Golden Knights are going to hang onto the resurgent netminder for the time being.

Loser: Those golden helmets

Vegas dropped to 0-2 when wearing their bright golden helmets, which make them look like construction workers in El Dorado. This has led some Knights fans to proclaim they should never wear them again. If the helmets do get vaulted, at least we’ll have this Pete Blackburn meme:

Winner: Hockey teams on Twitter

Strong week from NHL teams on social media. The Minnesota Wild took NFL star J.J. Watt’s proclamation that “free agency is wild” to its natural conclusion. The New Jersey Devils had a Salt Bae tribute and this message for the rival New York Rangers:

Losers: Hockey media on Twitter

Not the greatest week for the hockey media on Twitter. The Hockey News had to issue a note to its readers after it appeared to promote a “diversity issue” that had Zdeno Chara on the cover rather than a player of color. The Professional Hockey Writers Association, of which I’m a member, also came under fire when it promoted a kid gloves, image rehabilitation, public relations puff piece column on disgraced Rangers defenseman Tony DeAngelo “baring his soul” in the New York Post. Every day, there are incredible stories by hockey journalists promoted by the PHWA. This one didn’t merit that spotlight.

Puck Headlines

  • The Washington Capitals‘ Reverse Retro jersey might be more popular than their usual home and away jerseys.

  • Tremendous work by Bauer Hockey to help create Willie O’Ree commemorative skates that will be auctioned off to help benefit Black Girl Hockey Club.

  • Nathan MacKinnon will take part in the One Million Dollar Hole-in-One Challenge presented by Bridgestone on the par-3 17th hole of Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course. That hole was the same one Joe Sakic, the Avalanche’s general manager, aced during the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship in 2011. If MacKinnon makes the hole-in-one, the NHL will donate $1 million to the NHL/NHLPA Learn to Play program.” Like, the kids still get the money if he misses, right?

  • Ken Dryden’s piece on gigantic goaltenders and ways to increase scoring was really thought provoking — but also published on a day when almost every game on the schedule hit the over.

  • AJ Quetta, who suffered a spinal cord injury in a high school hockey game last month, was given an inspiring sendoff by teammates as he traveled to Shepherd Rehabilitation Center in Atlanta.

  • Erik Karlsson, battling an injury. Rinse and repeat.

  • P.K. Subban: “For a lot of the young players that get into the league, for the guys that are going to play for another 15 years, this can definitely hurt. I always say this, the elite players always seem to get paid. I think that for players right now, they just have to focus on what they can control and that’s how you play. If you play well, whether you get paid this year or next year or two years from now, you’re going to get paid.”

  • Justin Bourne breaks down all the Canadian teams at the quarter mark of the season. On Vancouver: “This seems like a season they’re destined to fall short, with changes coming. Frustration, frustration, frustration for a fanbase that historically handles that, ahem, with some difficulty.”

From your friends at ESPN

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