But it could be better.
I'm not a fan of cable. It doesn't like me, and we've reached a nice little mutual understanding about the whole thing. For the Winter Classic, however, I put the digital antenna to work and took in the whole spectacle on the local NBC affiliate.
This was the NHL in its ideal form and, as one Twitter (TWTR) follower described it, the NHL's Super Bowl.
Nearly 105,500 fans showed up to the University of Michigan's "Big House," as Michigan Stadium is known. That was the biggest crowd to ever attend a hockey game.
The fans clad in their blue Toronto Maple Leafs and red Detroit Red Wings jerseys gave the game a big-time feel. So did the presence of hockey's best play-by-play man, Mike "Doc" Emrick, and his boundless lexicon. And the 13-degree temperature, steadily falling snow and goalies wearing knit hats over their helmets added to the spectacle.
The 2-2 game, which ended only when the Maple Leafs' Tyler Bozak put one past Red Wings and Team USA goaltender Jimmy Howard, was like catnip for casual fans.
Its 2.9 rating matched the previous record for an NHL regular-season game, which was set by the 2009 Winter Classic between the Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks.
Yet something seemed off. For what has become the NHL's premier event, there was a sense that the league wasn't pulling out all the stops.
With all due respect to Ann Arbor's own Mayer Hawthorne, who played music while the teams entered and provided a jammy interlude between segments, couldn't the NHL have mustered Eminem, or Jack White or Iggy Pop?
And again, no disrespect to Hawthorne's whole neo-soul aesthetic, but didn't Michigan once serve as a nexus for R&B and soul? Wasn't there a little label called Motown that could have provided any number of luminaries for this gig?
Let's talk about the national anthems for a second. Canada sent down The Tenors, refined vocalists with the chops to pull off an impressive bilingual version of O, Canada.
So who does the NHL send as the nation's representatives for The Star-Spangled Banner? The Zac Brown Band.
Listen, the Zac Brown Band does jammy vacation country about as well as anyone this side of Jimmy Buffett/Kenny Chesney, but the mere presence of "Band" in the name should have made organizers think twice. Forcing a band to put down its instruments and perform a cappella when The Tenors have just left the stage is a tall order.
Brown and Co. performed admirably, but we're still wondering what they were doing there in the first place.
Even the commercials come up short. Enterprise Rent-A-Car seemed to be the only company giving it much of a try, but even it recycled Rusted Root's Send Me on My Way for a spot similar to those it has aired during the NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs over the last few years.
Beyond the NHL and Verizon's (VZ) #FOMOH commercials for its GameCenter streaming service,there wasn't much tucked amid the game's myriad commercial breaks to keep viewers from popping in on bowl games or just about anything else.
The game deserves better, especially this year. With the Heritage Classic serving as Canada's premier outdoor NHL event, the Winter Classic is the biggest U.S. audience the league and hockey itself can hope for.
The NHL knows this and, as was the case during the 2010 Winter Classic in Boston's Fenway Park, it used the event as an opportunity to introduce the members of the U.S. men's and women's Olympic hockey teams.
In NHL terms, this is no small deal. Back in 2010, the average of 27.6 million U.S. viewers who watched the men's hockey gold medal game between the U.S. and Canada was a bigger audience than baseball's World Series had drawn since 2004.
It was more watched than any NBA Finals or NCAA Men's Final Four game since 1998. It was an NFL big-game audience with a ratings share that ranked behind only the Super Bowl and college football's championship game that year.
In other words, it's the only hockey game besides the Winter Classic that most casual U.S. sports fans are going to watch.
An Olympic final featuring the U.S. team is going to draw eyeballs on its own, but a Winter Classic shooting for the same audience needs to bring a little more than cold, snow and second-tier entertainment if it's going to cement its position as one of the biggest events in all of sports.
With a little more attention, the NHL could strengthen the Winter Classic to the point where advertisers not only are compelled to spend significant money on it but to make commercials exclusively for it.
The league could broaden its Winter Classic offerings to include better coverage of the alumni game, more parties and events in the host city and some top-tier talent for its music and presentation portions. More importantly, it could tie together its HBO 24/7 Winter Classic documentaries, NBCSN coverage and on-the-ground events with something stronger than a logo.
The NHL needs the Winter Classic as a gateway brand, but it needs it even more as a cornerstone event. If it thinks bigger, it can have both.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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