Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray (30) blocks a shot by Philadelphia Flyers' Chris VandeVelde (76) in the second period of an NHL Stadium Series hockey game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
PITTSBURGH – Truth be told, I came to Heinz Field for the Penguins-Philadelphia Flyers Stadium Series game with the idea of ripping the league for yet another one of these inane outdoor games in an oversized baseball or, as the case Saturday night, football stadium.
Wrong venue (it should have been played on a neutral site at Happy Valley, if not PNC Park) had been my argument. Better opponent (Penguins-Flyers would have been so much better a few years ago when Philadelphia could score goals or barring that, fight. But, hey, at least the Chicago Blackhawks weren’t involved for the umpteenth time). There was no buzz (where were the HBO cameras to chronicle the weeks leading up to the game)?
All of these arguments are valid, by the way, but you know what? It was still awesome.
You had me at pyrotechnics and giant American flag, NHL.
Don’t believe me, ask any of the 67,318 who filled the home of the Steelers on Saturday night.
“Anytime you play outside, I think there’s something that brings you back,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, the game’s No. 2 star. “You play so many games as a kid outside on a pond or on a lake, to be able to do it in the NHL, especially at home a couple times, is pretty special.”
No, the hockey itself wasn’t great, the play was a little sloppy as passes missed their mark, but those nuances are to be expected in any outdoor game no matter how far ice-making technology has improved. Clearly it’s come a long way since that New Year’s Day game in snowy Buffalo nine years ago. Given the circumstances, like unseasonable 78-degree temperatures on Friday, the ice was remarkably good. The game-time temperature of a blustery 35 degrees and occasional flurries made it seem like, you know, a normal February in Pittsburgh.
Compared to the 2011 Winter Classic at Heinz Field, this was all the league could have possibly hoped for. This time, there was no seven-hour delay, no rain puddles forming on the ice, no glass cleanings at TV timeouts.
And perhaps, most importantly -- even more than the Penguins’ 4-2 win over the Flyers -- there was no injury to Crosby. Couldn’t say so the last time, could you?
Crosby opened the scoring at 11:18 of the first period, but the Penguins star captain wasn’t even the best player on the ice. That would have been goalie Matt Murray, who made 36 saves as the Penguins survived an onslaught from a desperate Flyers team, or perhaps rookie winger Jake Guentzel, who assisted on Pittsburgh’s first two goals.
“I felt privileged to be part of it,” Murray said.
Of course, the real star of the game was the NHL.
It takes a certain business expertise to get away with charging top dollar for poor sightlines, $60 parking (you’re welcome the Rivers) and not draw too many complaints.
Take these outdoor games for what they are: A spectacle.
The NHL gets knocked for a lot of reasons, most of them justified, but the idea of an outdoor game, a celebration of the sport, is a tremendous concept and marketing tool.
The problem for the NHL is the sheer volume of these games. Obviously, the goal of any business is to make money but you can have too much of a good thing. Since Crosby shoveled a shootout attempt past Ryan Miller in 2009, there have been 20 of these outdoor games in their various – Stadium Series, Winter, Centennial and Heritage Classic – incarnations. Saturday’s game was the fourth one of these this year.
How about one game a year? Maybe once every other year?
Saturday night at Heinz Field was special. Just as it was special six years ago here or nine years ago in Orchard Park, N.Y.
Outdoor games aren’t going away anytime soon, nor should they. Listening to the Penguins players after their win, they certainly haven’t tired of it.
“You won’t hear that from me, to be honest,” said Penguins defenseman Chad Ruhwedel, an unlikely goal scorer Saturday, and a San Diego native who didn’t grow up playing on a lake or pond. “It’s cool if you get the chance to experience it. Obviously everyone in the league would want to experience this. I don’t see that (outdoor game fatigue). If we had 68,000 people here, it seemed they liked it too.”