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Six outdoor games not such a bad thing

We're not privy to the NHL's marketing slogan for the 2013-14 season, but it might be something like "Go Big or Go Home, but Definitely Go Outdoors."

Of course, if you read much of the negative commentary surrounding the NHL's decision to multiply its successful outdoor game model like so many bunnies next season -- with six in-the-elements events on the docket -- you'd think the league was determined to bring back the glowing puck and make all its players wear uniforms with blinking lights.

The NHL announced Wednesday the first plank in its ambitious stadium series of outdoor games for the 2013-14 season, a March 1 date at Soldier Field in Chicago between the Blackhawks and the Pittsburgh Penguins, set for 8 p.m. ET.

Over the next week or so, the league will unveil its plans for two outdoor games during Super Bowl at Yankee Stadium involving all three New York-area teams; one at Dodger Stadium between the Anaheim Ducks and the Los Angeles Kings on Jan. 25; and another installment of the Heritage Classic in Vancouver between the Canucks and the Ottawa Senators to be held the same weekend as the Soldier Field event.

These games are in addition to the previously announced Winter Classic to be held Jan. 1, 2014, in Ann Arbor, Mich., between Original Six rivals, the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

When news first broke last month that the NHL was going to take its product outdoors for a total of six games next season, it was interesting to note the instant boo-hooing that arose, mostly from the media.

Oh, too many outdoor games.

Oh, it'll turn the Winter Classic into a cheap dime-store version of its former self.

Oh, it'll rain.

Oh, it'll be too hot.

Oh, the league just wants to make money.

Funny how it works, but the NHL has long been criticized -- and rightly so -- for being too timid, too parochial, too unwilling to seize the moment and work at becoming more than just a niche sport in the United States.

Outdoor games aren't a panacea for all that ails the NHL, but when the league does think outside the box, it is flayed in some quarters.

Yes, these outdoor games are financially successful. Is that a reason not to do more of them?

Funny how much of the criticism of the league has come from the media, and yet we haven't heard much carping from the fans themselves.

Are people in California upset with the opportunity to take in an evening of hockey at Dodger Stadium? Don't think so. And unless we are completely off base (get it, a baseball reference for this game?) the tickets to the first regular-season outdoor game on the West Coast will go in a heartbeat.

Assuming the event is well-received, it will also open the door to more outdoor opportunities in nontraditional markets.

Are the fans in the New York area -- where the NHL estimates there will be 1,000 accredited media members for the Super Bowl festivities leading up to the game in New Jersey on Feb. 2 -- barking at the fact that the New York Rangers will play the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils in twin games at Yankee Stadium?

Uh, no.

Think fans in Chicago will turn away from a chance to see their beloved Blackhawks and the Penguins at Soldier Field because they already hosted a Winter Classic in 2009?

That game between the Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings, the second Winter Classic ever, is considered by Chicago officials to be a seminal event in that team's renaissance after years of being the butt of jokes throughout the sporting world.

The 2013-14 season provides an interesting opportunity for the NHL to try to write itself back into the good news department after another potentially catastrophic labor stoppage scuttled almost half the 2012-13 season.

In a matter of weeks, the NHL will formalize its relationship with the Olympics and agree to take part in the Sochi Games in February.

Two of the outdoor games, including the Soldier Field game, will take place the first weekend after the end of the Olympics and should provide a terrific lead-in to the stretch run of the regular season and be a nice reminder that the NHL is back in business after being shut down for the Olympic break (something that not all owners agree is a good thing).

As for the notion that introducing other outdoor events to the NHL landscape somehow cheapens the Winter Classic, which has evolved into the NHL's most important regular-season date, the schedule of events surrounding the Winter Classic in Michigan promises to make it the most successful iteration yet.

Each year the Winter Classic has grown in scope, and the net it has cast around the hockey community has grown. The event next year involving the Red Wings, postponed this season because of the lockout, calls for multiple alumni games to be played at Comerica Park in downtown Detroit, along with games at various levels, including the major junior and college ranks.

NHL COO John Collins suggested in an interview that the Detroit Winter Classic will be the “granddaddy” of Winter Classics given the surrounding events, including those at Comerica Park, and the game itself at the Big House in Ann Arbor.

Whether it's been Boston or Philadelphia or Chicago, the Winter Classic games have captured the imagination of the local markets and become a touchstone for the casual fan, an elusive group the NHL has been courting for decades.

The fact that more fans than ever will be able to take part in these kinds of events next season can hardly diminish that dynamic.

"It's not just one lens you're looking at this through,” Collins told ESPN.com on the eve of the Soldier Field announcement. "You have to be at these events to understand how the game becomes a gathering point for a community, the way a community lights up around hockey."

"That local impact is incredibly powerful," Collins said.

Would the fans in California likely have a chance to take in a Winter Classic if the league stayed within some self-imposed limit of having one or two outdoor games a season? Not likely.

Is it important to return to big markets like Chicago, where the game continues to grow in importance? Absolutely.

But next season allows the NHL to broaden its appeal while still promoting its biggest markets, and its biggest stars, on the outdoor stage.

Are there risks with taking the NHL into the elements six times next season? Of course.

The league will purchase a new portable ice-making unit that will be used for the Dodger Stadium game, then transported up the coast to Vancouver for the Heritage Classic. But even as technology has evolved and given the league more opportunity to create pristine ice surfaces outdoors in different locales, there will always be concerns about the integrity of the game when you expose it to the natural elements.

Any time the league puts on one of these events, it courts disaster as it relates to how Mother Nature will react. It rained in Pittsburgh in 2011 and the Winter Classic had to be postponed a day.

There have been issues with sun and snow, and the potential for precipitation in Vancouver or in New York next season will always be there. But the league has contingency plans, and what might happen with the weather has become part of the fabric of the events themselves.

What happens moving forward will depend largely on how next season’s outdoor experiment works out.

"I think it’s fluid but we are working on a three-year plan," Collins said.

Added deputy commissioner Bill Daly, "Next year represents opportunities that aren't going to be there every year."

There is nothing to suggest the NHL will go outside five or six times every year, but if these events unfold as planned, you can bet the number of teams clamoring to host an outdoor game will only increase.

In the end, is that such a bad thing?