All 71,217 fans watching at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, New York witnessed a historic event when Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby capped the NHL’s Winter Classic last January. Crosby shoveled a puck past Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller for a dramatic overtime game-winner.
Crosby didn’t just win the game for his Penguins, his shootout goal was also a big win for the National Hockey League. The league scored big with its first outdoor game on American ice by netting its biggest television ratings in nearly 11 years with a 2.6 overnight rating (about two million US households). Even Wayne Gretzky’s final game in 1999 failed to draw this many viewers.
The “outdoor pond” hockey game was virtually tied in TV ratings with the 2008 Gator Bowl (2007-2008 Season), college football matchup between the Texas Tech Red Raiders, and Virginia Cavaliers.
Following the Winter Classic, hockey fans new and old alike suggested that the league should repeat the outdoor game.
And why not?
Each time the league has decided to play an outdoor game in the past, it has worked out. One example was on Nov. 22, 2003 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada with the Heritage Classic. Over 57,000 fans packed into Commonwealth Stadium for a showdown between the Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens.
The climate from indoors to outdoors is a dynamic change in hockey that doesn’t happen too often, but sports fans in general seem to enjoy it.
An intra-state showdown between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers at Beaver Stadium has great potential.
The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees baseball rivalry is arguably the greatest in professional sports, but Pittsburgh and Philadelphia come close, if not right up there with the Sox and Yanks.
The idea of having an outdoor hockey game between these two cities isn’t as far-fetched as some might think.
Hockey has the potential to take place at Penn State. Days after the NHL’s Winter Classic, hockey was briefly popular again in the United States. Questions about where the next outdoor game should occur and what teams should square off were debated on television and radio shows throughout the country.
Some of the venues in the mix were Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, and Beaver Stadium before Wrigley Field finally won the rights to the game on Jan. 1, 2009.
“I would think that (Penguins/Flyers) might be a better draw than the New York Rangers and New York Islanders because hockey is pretty far down the sports totem pole in New York,” said Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette.
Not to mention, if the Penguins/Flyers rivalry wasn’t already heated enough, the two teams squared off in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, with the Penguins prevailing in five games.
But if the NHL pitched the idea to Penn State, would they accept it?
“I don’t see why they wouldn’t,” added Cook.
“I’m sure a hockey game at Beaver Stadium between the Flyers and Penguins would be a huge moneymaker.”
“I think Penn State certainly would have been interested and entertained it,” said Penn State Icers head coach Scott Balboni while sitting in his office surrounded by team pictures, jerseys, and trophies.
“I think it was something they were relatively excited about looking at and having some people come to town.”
Balboni also admitted talking to Penn State athletic director Tim Curley about the idea, and Curley confirmed that the idea has not been pitched by the NHL.
In every major sporting event, there is an economic factor. When a team hosts an event at their home stadium, they generate an enormous amount of revenue.
“I don't see this as a problem. We're not talking about losing a crowd of 80,000, as an NFL team does when it plays in Canada or in Europe," said Cook.
“You're talking about 20,000 tops. If you could sell 100,000 tickets at Beaver Stadium, which I think the teams could, everybody would make money.”
“I can't see either the Flyers or Penguins taking the revenue such a game would produce away from their home city," said Bob Smizik, also of the Post-Gazette.
“I'm not talking about just gate receipts; I'm talking about restaurants and hotels.”
There is no doubt that the city of State College would benefit greatly from this event. It would be similar to the commencement ceremonies at the university, where hotels are booked a year in advance.
You would have to think both of these franchises would also benefit from this event. According to the Versus television network, when the Pittsburgh Penguins hosted the New York Rangers last season on April 27, 2008, it was their 60th straight sellout at Mellon Arena.
Looking at last year’s playoffs and the beginning of this season, the Flyers and Penguins are two of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. According to ESPN.com, they were both in the top 10 in home attendance in 2008, the Penguins placing eighth and the Flyers ninth. The Penguins sold 100.7 percent of their tickets and the Flyers sold 100.3 percent.
Looking at these statistics, I feel many Pennsylvanians, Penn State alumni, and hockey fans throughout the world would travel to see this unique brand of hockey. The teams, fans, and university would all benefit from this idea.
“If you put 75,000 people in here to watch a hockey game, like they did in Buffalo, the ticket revenue generated from that is obviously substantially greater then if you put 17,000 in the Igloo,” (Mellon Arena) said Balboni.
And ticket revenue is a very big portion of player salaries in the NHL. The NHL isn’t like the NFL or MLB, where a substantial amount of money comes from television network deals as well as ticket revenue.
“Because of the newness of the event and the uniqueness of the event, I think an outdoor game at Beaver Stadium would be hitting on those football fans that come to every game, anybody who has anything to do with Penn State as well as hockey fans all around,” added Balboni.
“You would definitely see that 80,000-90,000 number hit.”
Jan. 1, 2010: Will there be a third straight outdoor game?
If so, I have to put Beaver Stadium at Penn State at the top of the list!