Tuesdays With Stoosh: 12.28

Winter Classic Week is upon us here in Pittsburgh.  I never thought the weather would get more attention here than it did last year during Snowmageddon, but that might be the case this week.  If you bought tickets to the game, your best friends this week are Dennis Bowman, Demetrius Ivory and Erin Kienzle. 
But seriously, like Staff said, chances are this thing is going on one way or another.  They’ve basically got all day Saturday to get the game in and if that doesn’t go off, welcome to 9:00 AM outdoor hockey on Sunday.  
All we need now is for someone to buy up www.isthewinterclassicgoingtobeok.com.
And imagine if this thing gets bumped to 9:00 AM on Sunday.  How awesome would THAT be for the league?  Not only could the broadcast crew exploit the notion that all of these players grew up in areas of the Great White North/Siberia far too remote to know the luxury of a hockey rink with a roof, but a 9:00 AM start would give Doc and Edzo the excuse to wax poetic about all those early-morning practices the players surely endured when they were eight years old.
So this will be the league’s fourth Winter Classic – or at least the fourth outdoor game tagged as such – and it’s kind of interesting to see what this has become.  This thing was a joke when the NHL first announced the decision to play the game, not so much because of the game itself, but because they decided to hold the event on New Years’ Day, a day normally reserved and associated with college football by most Americans.  Even fans of the Pens and Sabres – the hockey fans who cared the most about it – were skeptical of the event and no one could really blame them.
That skepticism started to go away once fans tuned into the NHL Network’s broadcasts of the outdoor practices prior to the game.  It looked great.  The outdoor setting.  The snowfall on gameday.  The throwback jerseys (I know they get plenty of grief, but the baby blues looked terrific in that game).
Say what you will about the way the NHL handles things sometimes and even their reasons for having this game, but it looked awesome.  Outdoor hockey looks incredible on TV.  By the end of the night, the game was all over Sportscenter & other media outlets that normally got to the NHL about 50 minutes into their 60-minute sportscast. 
It had nothing really to do with the quality of the game.  By any standard, the Pittsburgh-Buffalo game wasn’t good hockey.  It was a low-scoring game marred by many stoppages of play late as the snowfall increased and the ice conditions suffered.  But it was the atmosphere and way it translated to television, all wrapped up with a Sidney Crosby shootout goal that provided a bit of a storybook finish (at least for Pens fans and NHL marketing folks) that captured everyone’s attention.
So the NHL finally had their made-for-television event.  Short of a Game Seven in the Stanley Cup Finals, the Winter Classic has become the biggest thing the NHL puts on television to sell the game to casual fans.  There’s probably some irony there…that the NHL’s biggest television event is something that looks least like the standard product.
Judging by the buzz it’s maintained among hockey fans, even the “OMG I can’t believe they’re dumb enough to put this up against college football” angle has died down.  Maybe that can be blamed in part on the NCAA helping out by devaluing New Years’ Day as the biggest day in college football (the only “marquee” bowls being played this year on Jan. 1 are the Rose Bowl and the Fiesta Bowl, neither of which kick off until evening).  
Not sure how many casual fans decided to forego college bowl games for Detroit-Chicago or Philly-Boston.  It probably doesn’t matter.  As great as those matchups looked for hockey fans and fans in those markets, the league has been waiting to get this Caps-Pens/Crosby-Ovechkin angle in this game from the moment Sid’s shootout shot turned the light on behind Ryan Miller three years ago.  THIS is the NHL’s version of Bird-Magic on Christmas Day or Brady-Manning to open an NFL season.
That’s not to say all hockey fans embrace this game.  This is now Year Six of the NHL’s SidOvieGasm, and Pens fans, Caps fans and hockey fans in general have grown weary of the constant “rivalry” angle being plugged by the league whenever the two teams face off.  Worth noting, though, that when the two teams met last week, the vitriol in the Caps crowd was almost tangible.  And Pens fans have certainly taken some satisfaction in the stark contrasts between the ways the two teams have looked in the two episodes of 24/7.  So maybe the rivalry isn’t quite so dead.
The NHL drew lots of criticism – much of it justifiable – about the way tickets were handled for both the season ticket holders and the general public.  Yes, it’s a made-for-television event and to that end, yes, it’s become the NHL’s “Super Bowl”, so to speak.  It’s a sponsor-driven game and the corporate seats are the ones the league will cater to, and I guess that’s the reality of pro sports these days.  
This is an event being used to market the game to casual fans in the hopes that they latch on, become more active fans, and eventually spend money on tickets, perhaps even season tickets.  You’ve now won them over and managed to get them to invest money in their newfound loyalty, only to crap all over them the next time a marquee event like this comes around.  It just would’ve been nice to see the league be a little more accommodating to the “regular” fans.  Give the STH’s more of a break on the cost, or make more seats available to the general public.  Don’t force these people to rely on StubHub or Ebay or other outlets to go to something like this.
Other thoughts, dudes…
= All that said, it IS tough to argue with the events that have been spawned off from this event – events we might not have seen if not for the Classic coming to Pittsburgh.  The alumni game may have drawn enough more interest than the WC game itself.  The college/minor league doubleheader on Dec. 30 with RIT vs. RMU and then Wilkes-Barre & Hershey was a terrific idea.  I drove past the community outdoor rink built adjacent to Heinz Field last night and it was a great setup.
= Went back into the Pensblog archives and looked at some of the old threads leading up to the Pens-Sabres Winter Classic.  Wow.  In some ways that feels like just yesterday and in some ways, it feels like ages since we watched some of those guys.
= Completely forgot that Gary Roberts broke his leg in the last game right before the 2008 Winter Classic.  Someone please make sure he plays absolutely no pickup hockey or anything close prior to the alumni game, ok?  
= Just throwing this out there as a long-time reader and admirer of his writing – does anyone know what the deal is with John Buccigross’s NHL column over at ESPN.com?  He hasn’t posted a new one in almost a month.  I know he’s been doing a lot of work on Sportscenter lately, but I wasn’t sure if something else happened with the hockey columns & mailbags that he does.
= If absolutely nothing else, I’m thankful that the Winter Classic provided a pretty convenient excuse for HBO to do a 24/7 series about hockey, period.  It’s even better that it involves not just my favorite team, but one of my least favorite teams.  I remember a lot of people having reservations about this program when it was first announced, but the inside look into the Pens and Caps has made for some pretty damn interesting television (even if the 2nd episode wasn’t quite on par with the first).
= Green on an orange Vespa.  Wearing moccasins. And Caps fans think TALBOT is a douche?  Speaking of which…
= Celebrating a win by blasting a Jersey shore song.  Sometimes the jokes just write themselves.
= George McPhee’s office looks like it was designed by whoever puts together the team-coordinated bedroom/office sets that you see in the NHLShop catalogs, right down to the effing walls done in Capitals red.  
Big tip of the hat to PuckHuffers for getting the screencap in this post here.
= I’d love to see a 24/7 series on the week leading up to the NHL trade deadline.  Plant cameras with GMs of four or so teams – one a contender like the Pens, one in perennial rebuilding mode like the Isles, and a few somewhere in between.  Also set up cameras to get access to TSN’s set or something like that.  Or just follow Bob McKenzie and Pierre McGuire around.  Better yet, let the camera linger on everyone Pierre deals with, and just get their facial expressions reacting to whatever he says/does.
= Scott Burnside at ESPN dropped this little nugget in his “5 Things” column:

“But early in the second period, Spezza was drilled from behind by Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang. Spezza got up clutching his shoulder, and the team announced Monday that he is out indefinitely.

Letang, who has no history as a dirty or reckless player, got a two-minute boarding penalty while the Senators saw their modest playoff hopes take a swift kick in the shins.

Letang did not run at Spezza. He didn't leap into the air to check the Ottawa center. But he did give him a good, hard shot from behind, sending Spezza head-/shoulder-first into the boards. It is a play the NHL has been trying to weed out of the game.

Yes, Letang was penalized. But did the penalty fit the crime? Until the NHL comes to grips with marrying the results of dangerous plays with the plays themselves, that question will never be fully answered. As for justice, what happened on the ice in Ottawa on Sunday seems a long way from justice if you're a Senators fan.”

OK.  So if it WASN’T a *dirty* hit and it WAS penalized, why the cry for more?  Because Ottawa now has to deal with the prospects of six weeks without Spezza?  Is this even mentioned if Spezza ISN’T hurt?"

Injuries happen and it sucks, but it wasn’t a dirty hit.  And Letang was penalized.  
Players are told not to hit from behind, so I assume Burnside would like to make that penalty more severe.  Fine.  Two problems.  
First, in the same instance, Spezza went right to the locker room and that was it.  The refs had no idea at that point how bad it was.  The severity wasn’t known until several minutes later at least, and probably not entirely until the game was well over.  Do you penalize Letang after the fact?  Suspend him for a game or two?  Is THAT enough “justice” for what we agree was not a dirty hit?  If not, do we go to six weeks?  That’s ridiculous for a hit that wasn’t considered dirty.
Second, let’s not forget the acting factor here. This very clearly didn’t happen with Spezza; he was legitimately hurt.  But don’t players also know to NOT turn directly facing the boards in those situations? They are.  So what about the times a player goes into that three-foot area away from the boards, takes a peek to see someone coming, turns to the boards and then act like he got shot by a sniper, only to come back and take a regular shift three minutes later?  How do you penalize the guy who hit him for that?
I only bring this up because you can look at the NFL and see what a slippery slope this can create.  Player safety is obviously a concern, but look at the NFL and see what happens when that gets over-legislated and you try to account for every single situation.