The scene was magnificent. Sunlight shimmered off of beautiful Lake Tahoe as the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights took to a fresh sheet of ice on the shoreline of the California-Nevada state line. NBC opened their broadcast with aerial shots presenting the gorgeous lake in front of a wall of snow-capped mountains where more than a dozen kayaks dotted the water, all occupied by fans wanting to be a part of the experience. Players donned eye black and winter hats as they walked out of their respective locker rooms, some even sporting sunglasses, creating an atmosphere full of excited anticipation. After just one period of play, the game was suspended, not to be continued until over eight hours later.
The National Hockey League (NHL) has been playing regular season games outdoors since as early as 2003, and it has become an annual event ever since the Buffalo Sabres hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins in what was then Ralph Wilson Stadium (now Bills Stadium) on New Year’s Day in 2008. Originally just a single game to be played on the first day of each calendar year called the Winter Classic, the league has since expanded to include multiple outdoors games a year. Now 13 years since the Penguins defeated the Sabres in a 2-1 shootout, the two games of “NHL Outdoors at Lake Tahoe” are the 31st and 32nd regular season games to be played outdoors and the first to be played in a primarily scenic venue rather than a baseball or football stadium.
Outdoor games are highly profitable for the NHL when fans can attend. Past events have earned millions in profits — like the sold out 2014 Winter Classic game at Michigan’s Big House which netted the league nearly $20 million. It is no surprise that Covid-19 has disrupted many aspects of the NHL’s season this year. Commissioner Gary Bettman has stated that the league expects to lose more than $1 billion due in large part to a lack of fans in NHL arenas — only about one third of the league’s teams are allowing fans into the building and at very limited capacities. With these projected losses, it may not seem financially prudent for the league to plan an event like “NHL Outdoors at Lake Tahoe” in a Covid-restricted season, especially considering that fans would not be allowed in attendance. To compensate for lost ticket sales, the league hosted two games at Lake Tahoe instead of just one — the first on Feb. 20 between the Knights and the Avalanche and the second on Feb. 21 between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Boston Bruins. These matches relied upon television sponsorship deals and advertisements for their revenue.
The entire planning process for past outdoor games normally takes around 12 to14 months, as games have traditionally been announced at least a year in advance. This year, however, the proceedings were greatly accelerated. The games at Lake Tahoe were announced in early January as a replacement for this year’s Winter Classic and All-Star Game, both of which were canceled due to Covid, giving the NHL barely two months to prepare and construct a hockey rink for national television. The league chose the 18th hole of the golf course at the Edgewood Tahoe Resort in Stateline, Nevada for the rink’s location, a visually stunning spot on the southeast shore of Lake Tahoe. Unlike years past, the league did not have the luxury of utilizing infrastructure that was already present in the chosen host stadiums, meaning that everything had to be built from scratch, including the rink itself, both locker rooms and all wiring for electricity and internet access.
Considering the difficulties placed upon the league, it is impressive that they were able to successfully construct everything in time, and the beautiful backdrop of the lake and the mountains provided an undeniably spectacular scene. So on Saturday, Feb. 20 the Knights the Avalanche both looked excited to take the ice and seemed to be in high spirits as the puck was dropped a little after 2 p.m. local time. Unfortunately, for all those involved and the nearly 1.4 million who tuned in to watch the nationally broadcasted game, the fun was short-lived. After a first period in which the Avalanche dominated play, scoring just three minutes in on a Sam Girard wrist shot and outshooting the Knights 17-8, the ice was deemed too unsafe to continue play, and the game was indefinitely postponed.
Temperatures that hovered right around freezing combined with the bright sun to create a gorgeous day that was photogenic for television but disastrous for playing conditions, gradually melting the ice. There were divots in several areas of the ice, which players and officials tripped over multiple times during play and between whistles. Putting player safety above the continuation of the game, officials called the game for the time being and worked on the ice throughout the entire duration of the delay. Players were forced to return to their hotels and simply pass the time, many of whom stated that they treated the first period as a routine morning skate.
Play did not resume until after midnight on the east coast, over eight hours after the puck had originally been dropped. Though a much more competitive game when play continued for the final two periods, the Avalanche never let go of their early lead and won 3-2, adding goals from superstar Nathan MacKinnon and defenseman Devon Toews. The win put them two points behind Vegas for the lead in the hyper-competitive Western division at the time, a lead which Vegas still holds as of today (March 1).
Unfortunately for the NHL, the continuation of the game was broadcasted on NBCSN rather than the national NBC station, as the timing change meant the game now conflicted with Bridgerton star Regé-Jean Page’s episode of Saturday Night Live. Viewership numbers fell to around 394,000 for the final two periods, a loss of around a million viewers from the game’s original broadcast. This was an even larger loss in the grand scope of the NHL, as its viewership numbers declined last season since adapting to pandemic restrictions, forcing hockey to compete for viewers with sports normally played in different seasons.
This was also the first NHL outdoor game in which weather caused a serious delay — somewhat ironic considering it was sunlight and not snow that caused the postponement. The league had contingency plans in place as it does for all outdoors games — if the game had not continued, the leading team at the time of the delay would have been deemed the winner. Part of the game’s postponement, however, meant that the game the following day would be pushed back from the nationally televised 2:00 p.m. slot to 7:30 p.m. EST on NBCSN to prevent similar issues on the ice. The two teams playing on Feb. 21, the Bruins and Flyers, also had to move their practices indoors, meaning that the game would be the first time of the season that the players would skate outdoors.
The Bruins and Flyers,another pair of division rivals, last played each other outdoors in the 2010 Winter Classic at Fenway Park. This year, the Bruins arrived to the venue in ’90s inspired outfits and seemed to simply have more fun than any other team based on their entertaining post-game interviews to their actual on-ice play.
After a first period that ended knotted at 2-2, the Bruins pulled away from the Flyers, scoring four unanswered goals in the second period en route to a dominant 7-3 victory. Electrifying goal scorer David Pastrnak finished with his 11th career hat trick, his second against the Flyers this season alone and good for fourth-most in Bruins’ franchise history.Forward Trent Frederic netted his first career goal after playing a notable role with the team in each of the Bruins’ past two seasons.
Though it is difficult to blame a goaltender in any case, especially when his team gets outshot by a margin of 15-3 in the second period after being tied at the break, Flyers netminder Carter Hart did not play to his usual stellar standard. At only 22 years old, Hart is in his third season with the Flyers, and Lake Tahoe was the first start outdoors in his young career. Due to the fiasco the day before, Hart did not get a chance to practice outdoors and acclimate himself to the unfamiliar sightlines. While impossible to know for sure, it is not out of the question that Hart’s lack of outdoor practice contributed to him giving up six goals on just 23 shots and being pulled after the second period following a flurry of soft goals, three of which came with less than four minutes remaining in the frame.
The Flyers were also playing shorthanded due to the NHL’s measures to limit the spread of Covid, missing key players like longtime captain Claude Giroux and offensive stalwarts Jakub Voracek and Travis Konecny, all of whom, along with three others, were on the Covid-19 protocol list and could not play. Though it subtracts from the level of play, this is unfortunately the reality of this unprecedented NHL season and something virtually all teams will be forced to contend with.
While pushing the Bruins-Flyers game back ensured the quality of the ice and safety of the players, the delay caused the league to, yet again, lose viewership numbers that they were likely hoping for. The Feb. 21 match was shown on NBCSN instead of NBC for the second day in a row, and though it generated the highest audience numbers for a regular season NHL game in the channel’s history at around one million viewers, it was likely not the result the league wanted. For comparison, the 2020 Winter Classic played in Dallas, Texas generated 1.97 million viewers, which was by far the least watched game in the event’s history and was played on a day that competed with an Alabama-Michigan college football game that drew more than 14 million viewers. A normal indoor game between the New Jersey Devils and Washington Capitals was moved into the prime 2:00 p.m. slot on NBC’s main channel as a replacement and drew around 750,000 viewers.
Even with all the issues facing the games, it was still a memorable experience that fans and players alike were able to enjoy and likely soon won’t forget. The location was undeniably spectacular and even though it wasn’t actually played on the lake itself, the games’ lack of fans and crowd noise (the NHL chose not to pump in crowd noise like teams normally do during home games) created what felt like a true outdoor aesthetic, similar to scenes in the 1999 film “Mystery, Alaska.”.
At the end of the day, the league took a big risk and pushed just a little too far trying to create the perfect atmosphere for the NHL Outdoors at Lake Tahoe event. Regardless of whether the games at Lake Tahoe will be remembered as an embarrassment or a failure for the league, the NHL should be applauded for both its commitment to player safety and its attempt to create an innovative and unique experience to bring new fans to the sport of hockey.