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The NHL screws up the best thing it has: the Winter Classic…

See that picture above? That’s when Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins played in the Winter Classic.

The first time.

Now, it seems, that the Penguins are headed back outdoors. This time, however, the Washington Capitals will be their opponent in what can only be seen as the NHL whoring itself out for ratings.

No need to grow the game by having one of the other 23 teams that have yet to compete outdoors. No need to put one of the other 23 teams in front of a TV audience who is watching the game for the spectacle of the environment and not necessarily the clubs playing. No need to put one of the other 23 teams in a game where nobody else is playing so they have the entire hockey world to themselves.

Nah… no need for any of that.

By selecting the Penguins to participate the league is saying one thing: only star power matters. Crosby and Ovechkin, the faces of the league are marketed relentlessly by the NHL and rightfully so. Nobody can dispute their talent. But the one event the league has that anyone – yes, ANYONE – is eligible to participate in is the Winter Classic.

You don’t have to win the Stanley Cup to be in it. You don’t have to be a conference champion to be in it. Hell, you don’t even have to make the playoffs to be in it. It’s literally the one ratings bonanza that any team has the ability to play in and be the focus of the sporting world for three hours.

Let’s be clear here: I have absolutely zero problem with the Caps playing in this game. They deserve it. They’ve got an exciting brand of hockey as well as the game’s best player.  I also understand the NHL wants to promote a large market team under the notion that it’ll garner the biggest possible ratings and sponsors. The problem lies with the selection of the Penguins. The New York Rangers are an original six team in the largest market in North America, for example. Why weren’t they selected? Or maybe the Los Angeles Kings? They’re not only the second largest market in the United States but they’ll always need help raising awareness over all the other things to do in Southern California and they’ve got some of the best young talent in the league in Anže Kopitar, Alexander Frolov and Drew Doughty. Or, even to a lesser extent, how about the Minnesota Wild? Sure they don’t have the star power they once did before Marián Gáborík left but they’re the frickin’ State of Hockey! You can’t tell me the entire region wouldn’t be in front of their televisions or radios.

Below is a list of non-Canadian teams (ranked in market size) that aren’t named the Penguins, Buffalo Sabres, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Philadelphia Flyers or Boston Bruins (i.e. teams that haven’t played in an outdoor game yet).

New York Rangers (#1 market in North America)
New Jersey Devils (they share the #1 market with NY)
Los Angeles Kings (#2 market in the United States)
Dallas Stars (#5 in US)
Atlanta Thrashers (#7 in US)
Washington Capitals (#9 in US)
Florida Panthers (Miami is #12 in US)
Phoenix Coyotes (#15 in US)
Minnesota Wild (Minneapolis-St. Paul is #16 in US)
New York Islanders (#18 in US)
Tampa Bay Lightning (#19 in US)
Colorado Avalanche (Denver is #20 in US)
St. Louis Blues (#21 in US)
San Jose Sharks (#35 in US)
Columbus Blue Jackets (#36 in US)
Carolina Hurricanes (Raleigh is #42 in US)
Nashville Predators (#44 in US)

Trust me, I understand that there’s a happy medium. That casual hockey fans and die-hard hockey fans alike aren’t going to flock to their TV’s if there’s a Florida vs. Carolina Winter Classic. Don’t worry, I get that. What I am saying, however, is that every team should get a shot in the limelight before any team gets a second shot. Let’s face it, the Penguins and Capitals don’t need any exposure. They could play in an ECHL rink in Omaha and still draw TV ratings. So why can’t NBC and the NHL work it out to where a major market team (a la the Capitals) takes on a smaller market team (say, maybe, the Blue Jackets)? That way, they’re drawing the ratings anyway, the league is showcasing a team that doesn’t get as much media coverage traditionally, and every team gets the amazing experience of playing in an outdoor game.

Who knows, maybe some new stars will be born on hockey’s biggest non-Lord Stanley stage.

With this match-up of Pittsburgh and Washington, the NHL is basically admitting that only two players are worth anything to them: Crosby and Ovechkin. If anyone else is playing, they won’t get the same ratings, they won’t get the same media coverage and they won’t get the same hype. The truth is, it’s a hypocritical, self-fulfilling prophecy. The NHL expands from 21 to 30 teams in the 1990’s, including six non-traditional hockey market franchises (not to mention teams in Dallas, Carolina and Phoenix who moved from traditional markets during that same time) but yet, when given the opportunity to market those nine teams, the league reverts back to old hat.

There are plenty of stars to market in those nine cities. Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos in Tampa. Rick Nash and Steve Mason in Columbus. Shea Weber and Ryan Suter in Nashville. Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan in Anaheim. And I don’t think I need to start naming the laundry list of stars in San Jose.

Bottom line? There’s plenty of star power in the NHL. Even in places you wouldn’t think of. That’s what makes the game so great. I mean, you don’t see five or six teams putting up 20-60 seasons in a lopsided league like the NBA do you? No. You see a pretty competitive corps of clubs where any team can beat any other team on any given night.

Yet the NHL, as it does so often, fails in growing the game.