If you're a hockey fan living outside Chicago, the 2017 calendar year has been pretty good to you. You've watched the Blackhawks descend from the mountain peak to a cliff a couple miles below. You've enjoyed a four-game sweep at the hands of the Nashville Predators in which the Blackhawks scored three total goals. This season, you've reveled in the Blackhawks struggling to keep their heads above the playoff line despite Corey Crawford playing out of his mind for six weeks.
It's extremely petty and unnecessary, but so are many fun endeavors.
Perhaps the most delightful Blackhawks moment of 2017 was when they lost 5-1 to the St. Louis Blues in the Winter Classic, coupled with reports that ratings were the lowest ever for the annual event. It was the third straight year of record lows for the Winter Classic, a streak that began with the Blackhawks losing to the Washington Capitals.
The reason that filled many of our cold hearts with joy was the loud and clear message that had to reach the NHL—"We are fucking sick and tired of seeing the Blackhawks in outdoor games. We intentionally watched a Wisconsin-Western Michigan bowl game instead to get the point across that we don't need to see the Blackhawks in an outdoor setting in the near future or ever again."
The NHL heard you loud and clear, and that's why this past weekend it put out a press release announcing the 2019 Winter Classic matchup that may as well have read, "Go fuck yourselves!"
The god-damned-in-steep-decline Blackhawks are again participating in the Winter Classic, this time against an almost equally overexposed Boston Bruins team trapped in a phantom zone of mediocrity. It's the sixth outdoor game for the Blackhawks and fourth Winter Classic in 10 years, because fuck you, that's why.
Oh, you know which Winter Classic was the least-watched before Blackhawks-Blues last year? It was Canadiens-Bruins the year before that. Nobody wants this! Nobody is peppering the NHL with emails, letters, and phone calls asking to see Jonathan Toews vs. David Backes in a stadium setting! Nobody!
If your counter to this exhausting parade of uninteresting teams is to mention the settings for the most recent games were the reason for the ratings collapse, you can go fuck yourself, too. The past three games were played in Best Fans Ballpark, The House Bob Kraft Wired With Microphones To Enable Cheating, and That Building Where The Nationals Rip Hearts Out Every Year. Admittedly, those settings are about as sexy as your grandmother's bathroom, but come on.
"The setting" is the most overplayed part of this event. When you're there, it's great. There's this tiny rink off in the distance, framed by unique settings like Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park. Seeing an outdoor game in person is truly a dynamite experience. On television, you can feel that vibe from certain angles but for the most part, the rink looks the same as every other rink at every other outdoor game.
So this idea that Notre Dame Stadium—a fucking bowl that hasn't had anything noteworthy happen inside of it since Jon Favreau cheered for Sean Astin—is such horseshit. Ratings will be up over the past three years because this game doesn't involve a Canadian team, the Capitals or Blues, and will have two teams with big fan bases watching. The spectacle of watching a game where Lou Holtz once took halftime shits isn't doing much for the casual fans.
Although, the self-important Blackhawks hosting a Winter Classic in the stadium of college football's most self-important team makes this the most on-brand outdoor game in NHL history. Hopefully there will be someone on the Bruins' roster from Boston College that wins the game with a late goal.
The NHL announced the first Winter Classic between the Penguins and Sabres in September 2007, and here's what Gary Bettman said about the event itself: "This game provides a wonderful opportunity to showcase our great players."
Hey, that's true! It is a true thing said by Bettman, so savor the moment. But do you know how many teams have played in the Winter Classic since it began in 2008? Twelve! A fucking dozen of 30 (now 31) teams have played in the marquee outdoor event in front of a national audience on a network people actually get in their homes, hotels, and gyms. What started as a genius (no sarcasm) way to get more exposure for a league and players parched for exposure has become just another game for the handful of teams that draw significant eyeballs.
There's a chicken/egg thing happening there, too, because if nobody is watching the other 19 teams, why should they play in such a game? But if they never play in such a game, how will those 19 teams ever attract more fans?
Here's a list of players who have never played in a Winter Classic, with the caveat that some are very new to the league and others are retired: Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, John Tavares, Anze Kopitar, Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Scheifele, Kyle Wellwood, Blake Wheeler, Taylor Hall, Erik Karlsson, Sergei Bobrovsky, Jonathan Quick, Brent Burns, Joe Thornton, Shea Weber, Drew Doughty, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Mike Hoffman, Filip Forsberg, Roman Josi, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, Matt Duchene, Ilya Kovalchuk, Roberto Luongo, Martin Brodeur, Martin St. Louis, and Teemu Selanne.
First off, I slipped Kyle Wellwood in there to see if you were paying attention.
Secondly, some of those players' windows for getting into a game were nearly closed or have barely opened, and others played in side show outdoor games. But that's a lot of NHL talent with a lot of hardware that were never showcased because they had the unfortunate luck of being drafted by teams the NHL doesn't give a wet shit about.
But hey, who doesn't want Patrick Kane in front of a national audience?
While it's fun to hate the Blackhawks (something I've done before), the middle ground the NHL refuses to engage with these outdoor games is Blackhawks vs. Predators or Blackhawks vs. Lightning or Blackhawks vs. Stars or Blackhawks vs. Anyone That's Not Original Six Or In A Market That Does Well Locally. It's for that reason the NHL's "grow the game" outcry is so nauseating because if you're not bringing new fans into the big outdoor game, you're undercutting your own idea to "grow the game."
So while it's not really the Blackhawks' fault they're in this game, fuck them anyway. It's not the Yankees' or Cardinals' faults they're always part of Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN, but it doesn't make you hate them any less.
My unconfirmed but definitely correct theory is fans want a compelling storyline for this game more than Original Six (not a thing) teams or magical settings, which are always just settings you've already seen in the context of other sports. Stamkos and Kucherov doing their thing against Crosby and Malkin at… Beaver Stadium?… would do more for the NHL than what could quite possibly be two middling teams in 2019 sloshing around for the zillionth time.
I love Friends reruns as much as the next old person with zero taste but even I don't want to watch any more Phoebe episodes—the Blackhawks-Bruins outdoor game of Friends episodes.
The Blackhawks are deteriorating. Fans have made their voices heard by turning off the TV. The writing is on the wall, the ceiling, the floor, and the doors, that it's time to introduce new teams into this event.
With that knowledge in front of the NHL's faces, you should look forward to 42-year-old Kane and Toews in the 2031 Winter Classic when the Blackhawks battle the Quebec Nordiques on the moon and a 16th straight year of record-low ratings.
Listen to the latest episode of Biscuits