The future of minor league hockey & what it means for the Rangers
The New York Rangers have flourished when playing outdoors. The NHL could too.
Nearly 30 years ago the New York Rangers faced off with the Los Angeles Kings in a outdoor game. Played in the 1991 preseason, the game was the first outdoor game played between two NHL teams in the modern era. To make the game an even more ambitious event, it was held in Las Vegas. Temperatures during the day were in the mid 90’s leaving the ground temperature near 120 degrees.
The ice crew created a first of its kind cooling system to get the ice ready for play. MSG Vaults has a short clip, including some game footage, that detail the ingenuity required to make the game a reality. The game itself featured plenty of familiar faces like Tony Amonte, Doug Weight and John Vanbeisbrouck for the New York Rangers. The Kings dressed several former and would be future Blueshirts like Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Luc Robitaille, Tomas Sandstrom and Tony Granato.
in 2003 the NHL would follow this up with the Heritage Game, between the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers. The Heritage Game would be the first outdoor game played in the regular season. Five years later, the NHL would introduce the Winter Classic with the Pittsburgh Penguins playing against the Buffalo Sabres in the inaugural game. The Winter Classic, along with the Stadium Series (since 2014) have become staple events to NHL play.
Could these event games be the answer to bringing back fans during the pandemic? The NHL has already felt the effects of canceling roughly a dozen games per team and playing the playoffs without fans. This has placed the hard cap salary and revenue structure of the NHL into a standstill. A season without fans would be a nightmare scenario. Looking at how the other sports leagues have handled the situation provides a little clarity.
The National Football League (NFL) has opted not to provide a unified stance regarding fan attendance. Each NFL team has been left to its own decisions based on its own city and state guidelines. So, while there are fans, there is no league structure to emulate. Major League Baseball (MLB) and the World Series provide a far clearer answer. The World Series is being held at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, with limited fan attendance of up to 25% capacity. This capacity level is equal to 11,500 fans, well over half of a New York Rangers sell out crowd at the Garden.
It should be noted that Texas is nearing one million reported COVID-19 cases*, the highest of any state in the country. Arlington is within Tarrant County, which currently has the fourth highest rate in the State. It will take a week or more to ensure that no transmissions occurred among fans who did attend, but so far it appears to be a grand achievement . The success of the MLB to safely allow attendance should act as a template for all outdoor venue events, NHL games included.
While the MLB looks triumphant headed into Game Six tonight, it has not been without cost. Baseball chose prudence over profits. Until the World Series, the MLB played all 60 games of its shortened season and its playoffs without fans. This loss in revenue has led to major team layoffs, something the NHL would certainly wish to avoid.
On October 22, Blue Line Station reported that the NHL had canceled the 2021 All Star Weekend and Winter Classic. Within the replies of the post board it was suggested that the NHL could maximize fan attendance with outdoor games. The idea has since picked up some traction on twitter. For more than a decade the NHL has pulled out all the stops for the Winter Classic, Heritage and Stadium Series games. But each of these are special event games that present an experience above and beyond a normal regular season game.
For the league to realistically play the regular season outdoors, the league first needs to decide on the total number of games it will play next season. Further, the league needs to address the concerns presented by those decisions with the NHLPA. The MSG Vaults clip shows that while difficult, even 30 years ago, it was certainly possible to keep game ready ice in warmer climates. That said, with the NHL’s revenue sharing, it is not even necessary to have every team offer outdoor game attendance, every game for the league to benefit.
If the league were to decide on a shortened 48 game season and presented half the games outdoors, that would equal 372 outdoor games league wide. Taking the 11,500 World Series attendance figures as an average, that amounts to 4,278,000 fans. Slightly less than one third of the NHL’s normal capacity at an 18,000 seat arena average over a 48 game span. The question remains then, do the operational costs of outdoor games outweigh the possible profits gained from the gate and concessions revenue?
Should the NHL move forward with outdoor games, the New York Rangers may find themselves, essentially homeless. A state law in New York from 1982 provides MSG a significant property tax concession so long as the Rangers and Knicks play home games only at the Garden. To comply with the law, the Rangers have been the designated away team for games where they were the host.
The Buffalo Sabres were the home team at the Winter Classic in 2018, played at Citi Field. In 2015, the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils were the home teams at Yankee Stadium during the 2015 Stadium series games. There’s no doubt the league, team and the state of New York will find a way to navigate through these unique circumstances. The pandemic has already provided the Rangers with an exemption, having allowed the team to play as the home team during the Stanley Cup Qualifier in Toronto.
To make this a reality would be an ambitious endeavor. It will be a gamble. The NHL took that Vegas wager in 1991, they should double down to do so again league wide.
*all COVID-19 data reported from www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/