The NHL Winter Classic quickly has grown into more than just an outdoor hockey game to mark the New Year.
It now holds a place in the world of reality television, thanks to the treatment from HBO’s 24/7 series, which had people talking about last season’s Pittsburgh-Washington matchup weeks before it actually took place.
Like all good programming, the Winter Classic needs a good story. The league and the network believe they found one for 2012 after they announced last week the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers would participate and turned their cameras on those respective teams.
With that bit of business out the way, it cannot possibly be too soon to start contemplating the who, where and why — we know the when, of course — of the 2013 version.
Truthfully, it ought to be a no-brainer for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his staff. Think about it: The Nashville Predators against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Toronto.
You want story lines? How about one of the league’s grand franchises, one that spends money with the best of them yet often plays like the worst of them, against one of its youngest and most frugal franchises that annually enjoys more success than most believe it deserves?
The contrasts are undeniable and compelling.
You’re talking about Gilligan and Mr. Howell confined to the same tropical island. It’s Costanza’s neuroses and Kramer’s golden touch.
There’s no way people won’t want to watch — the series or the game.
Nashville has had one coach from the moment it played its first game in 1998. It has made the playoffs six of the last seven seasons despite grappling with one of the NHL’s lowest payrolls. It develops talent from within.
In contrast, Toronto has not reached the postseason since prior to the lockout that canceled the 2004-05 season. It has gone through three coaches, including some notable names, during the time the Predators have been in the league, but to no avail. It routinely has landed top free agent talent only to see those players come up short of expectations based on their salaries.
In short, the Predators would play the straight man to the Maple Leafs’ clown.
Plus, there’s any number of sub-plots that can be explored along the way.
Chief among them is the reality of the NHL’s current business climate, namely Canada’s claim to the game as its national passion, versus the fact that the majority of NHL teams reside in the U.S, increasingly so in nontraditional markets such as Nashville.
There’s the fact that the Toronto media routinely has targeted the Predators as a symbol of all that’s wrong with the NHL. Predators general manager David Poile is the son of Norman “Bud” Poile, a Hockey Hall of Famer whose distinguished career as a player, coach and executive began when he was an 18-year-old winger for Toronto.
There’s the stoic nature of the crowd at Maple Leafs games, where ticket prices are exorbitant to say the least, and the family-friendly, undeniably optimistic nature of the Bridgestone Arena faithful.
On top of all that, there is the relative mystery that exists between the clubs. They have played just 12 times in their history (only three in Nashville). The first one ended in a tie, and the Predators have won six of 11 since.
Seriously, how has no one thought about this? Or have they and just decided not to do it?
Even with its struggles, Toronto remains a showcase franchise for the league.
The one thing that cannot be scripted in “reality” television is the game itself. That means the Predators actually might win, and although they’d never admit it, that’s a chance that league officials (partially based in Toronto) probably do not want to take.