A consumer of NHL hockey for more than three decades, I’ve never once imagined it a clever and effective marketing idea to take NHLers, place them out on a football field, and have them fire pucks through the goalposts and toss footballs around to promote an outdoor hockey game, and yet that’s precisely what the league did last week at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh to kick off Winter Classic IV. There’s such a thing as getting too cute with marketing, and this moment surely was that. Worse, the league botched an opportunity to showcase the heart of the matter that is Pittsburgh-Washington in pucks: blissful hatred.
Heinz Field of course is home to the Steelers, and that begins and ends the NHL’s association with football next New Years Day. The goalposts should have been ditched, goal nets placed in the end zones instead, and the substance of the presser should have focused on past, present and future animosity as it relates to one of hockey’s great rivalries.
In an era of UFC, some Hatfield and McCoys in skates would have worked magnificently out on Heinz Field last week, but it wasn’t to be, because there’s a huge hit or huge miss tact the league takes to marketing our game. On the one hand we receive gems such as the pitch-perfect, highly amusing and entertaining 30-second spots that run throughout the season on the NHL Network. Some celebrate hockey’s inter-generational appeal, others the physical and emotional sacrifices associated with the pursuit of the Stanley Cup. Still others are just laugh out loud funny. The success of those spots is attributable to their celebration of hockey’s intrinsic spirit. Last week at Heinz Field the league took the opposite approach. All of the longstanding spirit of the Caps-Pens was AWOL. It was a great opportunity missed.
Touting the Caps-Pens rivalry isn’t to diminish the other great rivalries in the NHL, but next New Years Day represents the first instance of the league marrying its great new success, the Winter Classic, with one of its great storylines of every season. The Associated Press believes this is the greatest rivalry in all of hockey:
“The rivalry already is so good — the teams’ seven-game Eastern Conference playoff series two seasons ago was one of the NHL’s most compelling in years — Crosby doesn’t believe it will intensify by moving outdoors.
“I don’t think you can imagine it being more intense than it already is,” Crosby said.
The megawatt presence of Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby to these franchises has only catapulted the rivalry into must-see moments for sports fans generally. It’s a wonder this game didn’t inaugurate the Winter Classic.
But last Tuesday we had images of Sidney Crosby and Mike Knuble holding footballs and yucking it up. Why?
Here’s what ought to have transpired out on Heinz Field instead last week: key figures from the current teams should have been joined by alumni from Caps-Pens battles of yesteryear, and players present and past should have taken turns relating anecdotes of their great and fierce battles as they related to this rivalry.
On Sidney Crosby’s first-ever visit to Washington years ago I had a chance to interview him in the visitor’s locker room after a game, and the very first thing I asked him was to what extent was he aware of the Caps-Pens years-long poisonous relations. I was pleasantly shocked at his reply. He told me that he spent a fair portion of the previous summer pouring over vintage Caps-Pens games, precisely because so many in the Penguins’ organization had prioritized the rivalry for him. He spoke eloquently of the rivalry’s meaning even as a newcomer to it. I almost liked him for that.
Ironically, away from Heinz Field, Pittsburgh’s Max Talbot got to the heart of the matter by going on local radio and launching the latest missile in this ice war. He reiterated his hatred of the Washington hockey team and its star. Talbot’s radio rant was this Winter Classic’s most salient and sellable moment to date. It was a moment that no doubt made Gary Bettman and his marketing team cringe, while all hockey fans savored it. That moment should have teed off an in-kind roundtable of reflection down on Heinz Field about what will make next January 1 so special in the young legacy of the Winter Classic. Instead we saw mostly a bunch of Canucks tossing around a football and firing pucks between the wrong set of goalposts, looking silly.
Let it be a teaching moment for the league’s marketers: for the league’s showcase event of its regular season, trust in the intrinsic value of our great game, as you sometimes do, and most especially capitalize on one of its most compelling features: warriors, generation after generation, bearing a common crest, going to war against a hated neighbor. The names and numbers of the warriors in this special engagement change, however the hatred never abates. There’s a fierceness and intensity to the matchups between these storied rivals that I think is unrivaled anywhere else in the league, and next New Years Day, the battle takes place in a Roman Coliseum-sized setting.