Inventing traditions is part and parcel of American culture, indeed a tradition in itself. Today’s exhibit: the NHL Winter Classic, the one and only outdoor game on the league’s schedule played on New Year’s Day (or the next day if the year’s first day falls on a Sunday).
Traditions, as Eric Hobsbawm has shown in “The Invention of Tradition”, are cultural constructs. Underlining the strong commercial undercurrent of American culture, the motive for the NHL Winter Classic was business: the event originated at NBC Sports in an effort to boost the sport’s ratings in the U.S.* It has worked for both ratings and the sport in the U.S.: the first Winter Classic in 2008 was reportedly the most watched NHL game in 33 years, and the game continues to be the most watched game of the regular season.
I’ve watched every Winter Classic thus far. ‘My’ American and Eastern Conference team the Philadelphia Flyers will have appeared in it twice: losing to the Boston Bruins in 2010 in overtime, and playing the New York Rangers in Philadelphia today. The outdoor game is a wonderful way to celebrate the game’s origins.
The magic is nostalgic on the personal level, too: it’s a look back at my hockey-playing origins on the makeshift ice rink behind my elementary school in 1980’s Czechoslovakia. Any tradition worth its ice plays both the macro and micro games, touching simultaneously upon grand history and individual memory.
If you’re a hockey fan like me, the Winter Classic can appear to be a gimmick. You’d watch hockey without all the fuss. Plus, to call something a classic right away bends the language quite a bit; today’s Flyers-Rangers matchup will be only the 5th Winter Classic game. Then again, if it works, as it has, to elevate the game among your compatriots, so be it.
On the supply side, the National Hockey League has done well with special events, particularly in terms of marketing the game of hockey, which has traditionally lagged behind football, baseball, and basketball in popularity among Americans. The Winter Classic takes place close to the midpoint of the seasons that’s bookended by the opening games being played in Europe and the Stanley Cup finals. It especially helps in marketing the game to the casual fan in hope he’ll turn into a regular.**
As you read this, the 2012 Winter Classic game has been decided. But the Winter Classic as a hockey tradition lives on, through at least 2021. So much so that the Sports Illustrated columnist Dan Shaughnessy proclaimed in 2009 that “now hockey owns New Year’s Day the way baseball owns the Fourth of July and football owns Thanksgiving.”
And that’s how you invent a tradition.
* In fact, the Winter Classic has had a double benefit for Comcast, which owns both NBC and the Philadelphia Flyers.
** Helping viewership in the last two instances was the 4-part HBO special 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic, offering unprecedented glimpses into the world of hockey. I love it.
Image credit: NHL