Welcome to Blackburn’s Big Board, a weekly check-in on the hockey things that I currently care about. It’ll go a variety of ways, including teams that are earning my attention, players of note, storylines generating buzz and any other hockey topics that my weird brain finds compelling.
Winter Classic buzz is down, but does it matter?
We’re mere days away from the 2023 NHL Winter Classic, which could possibly come as a surprising reminder to some of you considering there’s very little buzz surrounding the event this year. I wouldn’t be shocked if peripheral hockey fans were a little hazy about the details, perhaps not knowing where it’s being played or who’s involved. (It’s the Bruins and Penguins at Fenway Park, by the way.) Hell, I live in Boston, I cover the league, I’m going to the game and I still haven’t thought much about it over the past couple of weeks.
Doesn’t seem like a great sign!
So, why the lack of buzz this time around? Well, there are a few different directions you could go here, including ones we’ve traveled many times before – including “the event has gotten stale” or “too watered down” with how many outdoor games there are now. You could also say that the same teams are involved too often, as this will be the Bruins’ fourth time playing and the Penguins’ third. The interest level could be diminished by the fact that this is also the first time we’ve had a repeat venue, as Fenway hosted the event in 2010.
Those are the easy explanations but, as I was having a conversation on the topic earlier this week, another idea was floated my way: With TNT acquiring the American broadcast rights from NBC a few years ago, there’s a little less incentive for local affiliate stations to push and promote the game. Of course, you’ll see ads for the game if you’re already watching TNT/NHL programming, but that advertising reach probably extended a bit further in years past when NBC would air commercials during NFL games or through local programming on affiliate stations.
In theory, it makes sense that the influence gap between NBC and TNT could be felt, regardless of how you feel about the quality of their respective programming and coverage. Just something to consider, I guess!
But one thing that shouldn’t take away from the interest level of the game is the quality of teams involved. The Bruins have been the best team in hockey for the entire season to this point, and the Penguins have been thoroughly impressive for much of the year as well. You can say that their involvement in the game is tired but you can’t say it’s a bad matchup without star power, which the NHL has to be pretty grateful for. Both Boston and Pittsburgh were projected by many to take a competitive step back this season but that’s been far from the case. Jackpot, right?
Unfortunately, the quality of play isn’t always a selling point of the Winter Classic. The outdoor elements, while often an incredible spectacle, can hinder the entertainment value of the game itself, both for fans at home and on-site. Weather can affect the ice surface and fan experience, sightlines can be tough and sometimes it’s easy to lose interest once the pomp and circumstance wears off a bit.
In any case, it’s hard for me to denounce the Winter Classic or say that it’s run its course because, well, here we are talking about it, even when it’s lacking its usual buzz. Nobody would otherwise have much reason to talk about a relatively meaningless regular season game between the Bruins and Penguins on Jan. 2, even if they are both good teams. And, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if the game sucks once the puck is dropped because the NHL is selling the memories (and the merchandise) attached to the spectacle more than they’re selling the game itself, and that stuff still definitely sells.
Alex Ovechkin makes history and earns a cool tribute
A couple weeks ago we touched on Alex Ovechkin hitting 800 career goals and approaching Gordie Howe for second on the all time NHL leaderboard. It took him a bit longer than we may have expected but Ovi did push past Mr. Hockey and move into second place with a two-goal performance against the Winnipeg Jets last week.
If you missed it, here’s the goal that tied him with Howe:
It’s always sweet to be able to witness history, and this was a cool scene watching how much the moment meant to Ovechkin and his teammates. It also felt a little extra special that it came while the Capitals were wearing a version of the sweater they sported when Ovechkin entered the league all those years ago.
The coolest part of the whole night, though, came after the final horn (and after Ovechkin notched 802 with an empty-netter) when the Jets all lined up to shake his hand and congratulate him on the milestone.
You rarely see the team handshake line outside of the playoffs or a big tentpole event (like the Winter Classic, for example) and it’s even rarer to see a handshake line for an individual achievement, but this one was certainly deserving. Only one player in NHL history has scored more goals than Ovechkin and that’s worth lining up for.
A Blue (Jackets) Christmas
I hope everyone had a Merry Christmas, or at least a better Christmas than the city of Columbus, which was dunked on (rather unnecessarily) by former Blue Jackets forward Max Domi last week.
Domi is on a one-year deal in Chicago so who knows which city he’ll be spending Christmas next year (probably not Columbus, I’d guess) but if he keeps this up he’ll certainly be spending it on the Naughty List.