NHL plays Classic safe with Alex-Sidney star power

by | Special to CBSSports.com

Already a spectacle in three short years, did the 2011 edition of the Winter Classic really need the star power of Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby?

Tapping Ovechkin, the immensely talented yet somewhat mercurial Capitals captain, was pretty much a no-brainer. He's flashy, brash and outgoing. But more than a few fans rolled their eyes when the league went back to the Penguins and Crosby, whose game-winning shootout goal through the snow in Buffalo was the highlight of the first Winter Classic in 2008.

Ovechkin and Crosby have dominated the No. 1 player debate in recent years. (Getty Images)  
Ovechkin and Crosby have dominated the No. 1 player debate in recent years. (Getty Images)  
The past two editions were all about venue, with the Red Wings beating the Blackhawks at Wrigley Field in 2009 and the Bruins edging the Flyers last January at Fenway Park. With the ill-conceived Pinstripe Bowl rendering Yankee Stadium unavailable at this time of year through 2013, the NHL opted for a rematch of the 2009 Eastern Conference semifinals, a series won by the Penguins in seven games, five of which were decided by one goal, including three in overtime.

"This is not our only compelling story, it's one of them," said Brendan Shanahan, NHL vice president of hockey and business development. "Ten years ago, this would have been Detroit-Colorado. The compelling story was [Steve] Yzerman-[Joe] Sakic and the rivalry of those two teams. Right now, this is a very compelling story."

HBO agreed, deciding to follow the Penguins and Capitals in the weeks leading up to the NHL's annual outdoor game. By drawing back the curtains on both teams, the four-part 24/7 documentary already has done in two weeks what the league has been unable to do for years: show players as more than blurred jersey numbers streaking across the television screen.

"I think people are getting a look at things they've probably never seen before -- the meetings, on the bench, the things going on on the ice, the travel, all that stuff. I mean, you're getting a pretty unique perspective on what it's like with our teams," Crosby said this week.

"I think that there's probably people who might not follow hockey a ton, but the fact that they're getting the opportunity to see what players go through, probably getting to know players a little better from both teams, I think it's something that's going to help, for sure."

The Penguins and Caps were chosen, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has said, before HBO entered the picture. And HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg has stayed true to his word that 24/7 would not be the "Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby Show." However, while Craig Adams' son is adorable and Bruce Boudreau's F-bomb run was impressive, it's difficult to imagine a major cable network devoting four hours of programming without the promise of at least a little star power.

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Star power. Isn't that what TV is all about? And not coincidentally, the NHL's contracts with NBC, which has televised the Winter Classic since its inception, and the Versus cable network expire at the end of the season.

A major reason has been the Winter Classic, which in 2009 produced the highest television rating for a regular-season game since the Canadiens were building their last dynasty in the mid-1970s. That surely has not gone unnoticed at ESPN, which all but abandoned the NHL following the 2004-05 lockout and devalued hockey to the point it became less newsworthy than arena football.

At the same time, ratings for last year's game at Fenway Park dropped slightly from the numbers generated at Wrigley Field. And that surely did not go unnoticed at the league's office in midtown Manhattan. So, even though the ratings were strong for last spring's Stanley Cup Finals between the Blackhawks and Flyers, the NHL left little to chance and came up with Ovechkin and Crosby at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field.

"We came in four years ago with a plan that said we're going to build on a national scale, to make the business as good as the game is," NHL COO John Collins said. "The Winter Classic, as probably the most prominent example, the biggest breakout star in that business plan, has had a huge influence ... on the NHL's ability to drive numbers, to drive business, whether it's TV ratings, merchandise sales or sponsorship."

At the Board of Governors meetings earlier this month, Bettman said the league is "in a good place" as far as television, adding, "There is more interest in us than there has ever been."

That interest, Collins understands, could pose an interesting dilemma. If the league opts for separate broadcast and cable carriers in the U.S., that could create demand for a second outdoor game each year. And then there's Canada, which this year gets the outdoor Heritage Classic on Feb. 20 in Calgary.

"It's definitely been a topic we've kicked around internally and with the clubs and our TV partners," he said. "There's a balance between keeping this special, which I do feel it has become, and being able to service the demands of the fans and the number of markets that really would like to get a game.

"The balance is keeping it special and unique. That's a tough balance. That's what we're going to work through in next couple of years."

For now, the Crosby-Ovechkin matchup fits right into the plan the league embarked upon four years ago.

"We want to make the game even bigger and more relevant beyond the hockey universe," Collins said. "I think this matchup has allowed us to do a lot of different things, including getting HBO interested. We're taking the storylines of this game and exposing the players to a much broader audience than we would traditionally be talking to."


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