Luke Graham's column appears periodically in the Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4229 or lgraham@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat Springs For the first time in a long time - a real long time - the suits that run the National Hockey League don't have anything to be ashamed of. The 2008 Winter Classic was exactly what the NHL needed.
Last weekend's outdoor game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Buffalo Sabres brought exposure to a sport that has all but dug its own grave as far as the American viewing public is concerned. It showcased the best talent in the game in Sidney Crosby, and they couldn't have picked a better place than Buffalo.
The game had a little of everything. It was competitive, loud and snowy.
There's nothing like lake effect snow and Ralph Wilson Stadium. If you've never experienced lake effect snow, go outside with a friend, start running and have your buddy hit you in the face with a cold glass of water when you reach full speed. You'll feel alive.
While the television numbers tell the story - it was the most-watched NHL game in more than a decade, it doesn't tell if hockey will ever get back to where it once was.
At one time, hockey was part of the big four with football, baseball and basketball. But thanks to Wayne Gretzky's retirement, expansion, some poor decisions by the NHL's brass, and a lockout, hockey now plays second (or sixth) fiddle to Americans.
So how can it change?
While the Winter Classic was a step in the right direction, the reality is that the game was more of a novelty act than an attractant to bringing sports fans to hockey.
The NHL certainly can't play every game outside, but it can take something from Buffalo.
There are maybe five U.S. states could be considered "hockey towns" - Buffalo, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia and St. Paul, Minn. Boston, Pittsburgh and Denver are honorable mentions. That means the NHL has teams in 22 cities that can't be classified as hockey towns.
In short, the NHL has to get smaller.
When expansion hit, the talent pool dropped. Teams like New Jersey instituted a trapping system, making hockey - at least to the casual fan - boring. The NHL should eliminate five teams, which would deepen the talent pool, stimulate rivalries and make an overall better product.
It's not easy telling franchises they're done. But with the way hockey is going, the sport itself (in America, at least) is on its way to being done.