Reports have now come out that the NHL has narrowed down its options for the next outdoor game (January 1st, 2009) to be held either in Chicago or in Pittsburgh, with at least the Red Wings or the Penguins being featured.
The apparent front-running stadium to host the event, though, is Wrigley Field, the hallowed "friendly confines" of the Chicago Cubs. The game would be between the Blackhawks (an exciting, improving, and young team with two blossoming superstars) and the Wings (an old, decrepit band of losers who might smear their greasy paws on the Stanley Cup this year).
But don't rule out Yankee Stadium just yet. The soon-to-be-demolished relic of baseball lore could still be chosen to host an outdoor game between the Rangers and the Bruins (yay, another East Coast-centric and over-hyped rivalry game).
The only other option on the table as far as locations go is the football stadium at Penn State University, called Beaver Stadium or "Happy Valley" (capacity: 107,282) which would host the Penguins and the Flyers.
One would suppose that the goal of the NHL's outdoor games is to boost exposure and revenue for the league by attracting as many fans (via ticket sales and TV viewership) as possible. This year's game at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium was a huge success, by all accounts. But I have a feeling that choosing baseball fields, especially the most well-known in America, is not really a good idea.
First of all, baseball stadiums have a smaller capacity than football stadiums. Ralph Wilson seats 73,967, but both Yankee Stadium and Wrigley Field are far below that, with 57,545 and 41,118 respectively. Also, while the rinks would no doubt fit into a typical baseball field, the geometries of the seating areas are strange and would result in some fans in lower seats being much farther away than others. And it would make for some really strange sight lines. Whereas football stadiums are essentially just ice hockey arenas on crack, baseball fields are completely different in arrangement.
Also of concern to me is the reaction of conservative baseball fans to the use of their most hallowed fields for other sports, especially a sport like hockey which is already ignored or disliked by a large number of American sports fans in general. Don't underestimate the old guard of baseball. The sport is not as flashy as football or as propped up as basketball, but there is a deep undercurrent of tradition that, once stirred, could be the source of some really bad publicity. We already saw a significantly serious reaction to the earliest talks about using Yankee Stadium. The futile cries of old men who distrust anything new or different? Maybe. But for a league desperately trying to boost its image in a positive way, alienating a crap ton of "average" sports fans is probably not the best way to succeed.
I, for one, am one of those old men, in that I passionately oppose the use of Wrigley Field to host an outdoor hockey game. Call me sentimental (or just a homer, since I'm a Cubs fan), but hockey doesn't belong on the baseball diamond. Football stadiums are better suited to host outdoor hockey, and tradition is a bit player in the narrative of pro football. I don't recall a large, vocal protest from Buffalo Bills fans about the use of their field to host the Sabres-Penguins game, and I doubt there'd be any backlash to the Wings and 'Hawks skating around in Soldier Field.
I'm all for outdoor NHL games, but I really think the league should look elsewhere than the most famous (and beloved by grumpy old men) baseball fields in the country. It just doesn't make sense financially, aesthetically or diplomatically.