Tuesdays With Stoosh: 8.03

“I walk around in the summer time saying, “How about this heat?”

Ahhhhh, August.

Steeler camp is in full swing.  Roethlisberger is taking more pictures with fans than a Presidential candidate on the campaign trail.  Jeff Reed manages to sound dumber every time he opens his mouth.  Peter King has written in his 20th straight Monday Morning QB column that he’s willing to bet Brett Favre is coming back next year.  Oh, and Madden ‘11 is out next week.  And I’m sure there’s a Pirates joke here somewhere, but we’ll let that be.

Ahhhhhh, August.

There is, of course, hockey to talk about here in Pittsburgh.  New Years Day, to be specific.

Last week’s press conference announcing the 2011 Winter Classic in Pittsburgh was mostly a formality.  The NHL got itself a little face time on the national airwaves during what is typically its most dead time of year.  OK, thanks to Max Talbot, the league managed to even steal a little bit of coverage from the start of NFL training camps.  Bettman got to publicly outline his next step towards his master plan of making Pittsburgh the center of the hockey universe.  Even Dan Onorato and Mayor Luke got to speak.

Accompanying the excitement for this event is an undercurrent of displeasure by some hockey fans – even some Pens fans – that the Winter Classic is going to be played in Pittsburgh.  Most of this stems from two things.  First, the Pens played in the inaugural Wnter Classic just a few years ago.  Second, this is another instance for the league to push the whole Crosby-Ovechkin thing down the throats of diehard and casual fans alike.

To the first point, yes, the Pens did just play in a Winter Classic game on January 1, 2008.  But the landscape of this game has changed drastically since then, and that’s worth noting here.  Prior to the game actually being staged in 2008, don’t forget that it was mostly a punchline.  Never mind the logistical risk the NHL took when it decided to stage the outdoor game given the uncertainty of the weather.  The NHL was roundly ridiculed for daring to stage a hockey game – a sport that doesn’t exactly get a lot of play in certain areas of the United States – on a day synonymous with college football bowl games.

The moment the broadcast opened to reveal those idyllic images of the rink at Ralph Wilson Stadium, the light snow falling and the entire atmosphere took hold, the jokes stopped.  It wasn’t the greatest hockey that was played, but it was a great event to watch.  All of a sudden, the NHL had something.

This is a league that doesn’t put its games on network television until late February when the season is already more than half-over.  This is a league broadcasts the first three games of the Stanley Cup Finals on Versus, not NBC.
It’s a regular-season game, but not just any regular-season game because of its setting.  That being the case, the Winter Classic has become almost as much an event for the NHL as the elimination games of the Cup Finals.

The kicker for the NHL is this – the Winter Classic is really the only “event” game in which the league can directly hand-pick the participating teams AND that it’s played on a day when most of America is in front of their televisions watching.  So maybe from a marketing standpoint, it’s probably only eclipsed by a Game Seven in the Cup Finals.

Yes, Crosby vs. Ovechkin is a tired angle for many diehard fans of the game.  Non-Pens and non-Caps fans are sick of it.  Hell, most Pens fans are sick of it.  I’m sick of it.  Caps fans are probably sick of it, too, but I can’t seem to distract them from the sirens, flashing lights and video prompts of the Verizon Center long enough to find out.

But if there’s one thing the league has done with these two, it’s correctly recognized that they are the two biggest superstars in the game and the closest things the league has to household names.  Toews and Kane are getting close and the Cup win by Chicago helped, but it’s still going to be Crosby and Ovechkin until a few other players emerge the same way the Toews and Kane did this year.

It’s not like other leagues don’t do this with their own stars or their own marquee teams.
Think Crosby and Ovechkin are overplayed?  Wait until January when we’ve had three straight months of flipping past ESPN and hearing Lebronwadeboshandkobe, Lebronwadeboshandkobe, Lebronwadeboshandkobe.

The NFL tries to get its best teams and marquee players on Monday night.  How much have we seen Brady vs. Manning over the last ten years?

ESPN has played the ever-living hell out of Yankees-Red Sox to the point that most baseball fans now root for a stadium collapse rather than pick sides.  Tune in to ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball and you’re almost guaranteed to see a game that involves the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, Mets, Phillies, Cardinals or Dodgers.  Pirates, Indians and Royals aren’t even in the MLB vocabulary at ESPN and Fox anymore.

Welcome to pro sports, 2010-11.

Not that any of this should or likely will detract from the event.  And that’s why maybe it’s a good idea to avoid taking this whole thing for granted.

It wasn’t all that long ago when the Pens weren’t on TV because they had no stars to sell.  It wasn’t all that long ago when the Penguins wouldn’t have merited consideration for an event like this.  Granted that time didn’t last all that long; we had a few down years between the Lemieux-Jagr era and the Crosby-Malkin era.

But there will also come a time where there is no more Crosby and Malkin for the league to sell here, either.  And maybe that superstar drought lasts a lot longer than three or four years.  Ask fans of the Florida Panthers, who have been in the league now close to twenty years and have never had much more than a couple of years of Pavel Bure to call a superstar of their own to watch.

There’s a good chance that some time in the next few years, the NHL will award Pittsburgh an All-Star Game.  That’s in part the product of having a new arena, but it’s a new arena that may not have been possible without the presence of a couple of marquee names who play 41 nights a year in that arena.  And if the NHL continues to promote the Winter Classic as an event, there’s a good chance that Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin won’t be limited by the one they’ll play a few months from now.

There are a lot of things the league fails to do when it comes to properly marketing its game, but the Winter Classic has proven to be one of the areas where the league has really achieved a good deal of success.  We’re all tired of Crosby vs. Ovechkin, but it’s what the league was bound to do for an event like this.  And as old as the storyline gets after a while, it shouldn’t detract from what should be a great event for the city and the fans of the Pens.

Besides, you can’t hear Edzo and Doc yammer on about the rivalry from your seats in Heinz Field, anyway.