Buffalo’s successful outdoor pro game whets appetites in the State of Hockey

If you were among the sizable number of local TV viewers who found the NHL’s Winter Classic, the outdoor game in Buffalo, amid the college football bowl buffet on New Year’s Day, bully for you.

Two years from now, get ready to see one of these in our backyard.

Pittsburgh’s 2-1 shootout victory over the Sabres, in a snowstorm before more than 71,000 diehards at Ralph Wilson Stadium, earned a 5.1 rating and 11 share in Minneapolis-St. Paul, the third-highest numbers in the country and trailing only the home markets of the two teams. (The share, the more meaningful number, means 11 percent of Twin Cities homes watching TV were tuned to at least some of the game.)

The national audience was the largest for any regular-season NHL telecast since February 1996 — which, for you purists, is one month after the gang at Fox introduced the comet-tailed puck and other ridiculous gadgets at the All-Star Game.

The thought of 60,000 bundled puckheads packed around an outdoor ice sheet has Minnesota Wild owner Bob Naegele and his partners punching each other with glee, if only there were actually a place big enough to hold the game. There will be when the University of Minnesota football stadium opens in the fall of 2009. U athletic director Joel Maturi plans to make an outdoor game happen, most likely in 2010.

“We certainly have discussed it, and will continue to discuss it,” Maturi said. “My sense is, we’ll have something like that at some point.”

According to Wild Vice President Bill Robertson, who oversees broadcasting and scheduling, Wild management has been kicking around the notion of playing an outdoor game here for months. It might have already happened if a suitable-sized venue existed.

Though Robertson said the Wild wouldn’t be opposed to playing somewhere else — Lambeau Field or Camp Randall Stadium at the University of Wisconsin come to mind — having a game outside the so-called State of Hockey defeats the purpose.

“We would love to be the host because we have such a rich hockey tradition in Minnesota,” said Robertson, who dabbled in playground hockey as a kid in St. Paul’s Highland Park. “But we’d never say never to anything.”

Several years ago, the U explored playing WCHA and high school games in the Metrodome as part of a statewide hockey festival. Maturi said the U estimated it would cost $300,000 to set up and maintain the rink, a bill that likely would be higher now.

Maturi envisions multiple games in the U’s new 50,000-seat outdoor stadium, involving the Wild and the U men’s and women’s teams. “For my money, if you’re going to have one game, why not have two, because the cost is not any greater,” Maturi said. “It would make sense to have as many games as possible.

“We’ll do what’s best for the U program and the State of Hockey. I think we’ll explore all options and determine what the best thing is to do.”

If I were running this, I’d make it a two-day deal over a weekend, with all the games in daylight. Saturday, let the U men and women play Wisconsin. Sunday, kick off the doubleheader with a big prep matchup, or Shattuck-St. Mary’s against somebody. Then have the Wild face a snow-belt Eastern Conference team with at least one ex-U product, such as Boston (Phil Kessel) or the Islanders (Kyle Okposo).

Charge $20 a head for admission, $10 per car to tailgate. And if it snows? That was the coolest part of the game in Buffalo, where Sabres goalie Ryan Miller wore a ski cap over his mask, and the ink on announcer Mike Emrick’s notes blurred into a blotchy mess.

I’d pay 20 bucks just to see Jacques Lemaire coach in a green ski mask, staring a hole in Derek Boogaard’s back after a stupid penalty. Now pass the hot cocoa.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by John Olson on 01/04/2008 - 08:36 am.

    I had to giggle at the ESPN Radio discussion the other day. The two personalities were bemoaning the ratings dive that many of the bowl games took, compared to last year. It never occurred to them (until later) that maybe–just maybe–the Winter Classic was a major factor.

    Never mind that most of the BCS bowl games were (IMHO) painful to watch at times. Meanwhile, on NBC, you could see the pure fun and joy these young men had playing in front of 71,000–something they may never see again in their playing careers.

    The NHL needs to understand the magnitude of the success of this game in Buffalo and build on it. Their marketing has been horrible (Versus????), the scheduling is atrocious and they have many, many young stars (Crosby, Ovechkin, Gaborik, Parise, etc.) at their disposal to promote the league. (BTW Pat, don’t forget that Crosby and Parise are SSM alums, along with Okposo…)

    Heck, if the U of M does do something like this, the NHL should invite Don Cherry and his CBC colleagues down to do a “South of the Border” Hockey Night in Canada live.

  2. Submitted by Pat Borzi on 01/04/2008 - 10:50 am.

    John: I don’t know how I forgot Zach Parise, whose dad, J. P. Parise (former North Star and NY Islander), started the hockey program at Shattuck. The Devils would be a great opponent, too, being one of Lemaire’s former teams. Crosby, if memory serves, spent one year at Shattuck. But Zach grew up in Minnesota, and some of the North Dakota crowd might load up the vans to come see the former Sioux star if the timing works out. — Pat B.

  3. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 01/04/2008 - 12:31 pm.

    “John: I don’t know how I forgot Zach Parise, whose dad, J. P. Parise (former North Star and NY Islander), started the hockey program at Shattuck.”

    Wow. I didn’t realize JP was old enough to have launched Shattuck’s program in 1925. He helped bring back the program in the 1990s, but it had been going in one form or another since 1925 (coop with Faribault, etc.)

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