NEW YORK — The NHL has limited its outdoor games to one or two a year since it first began playing them 10 years ago.
In January, that’s set to change. There will be four games that month, and two more in March. To the rest of North America, the events could begin to seem ordinary. But the league is confident they’ll remain a strong draw to the people who matter most.
“For fans that want to attend, we can’t do enough of them,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Thursday, standing on the spot at Yankee Stadium where the Rangers will play twice in January.
The week before the Super Bowl is played in New Jersey, the Rangers will take on both of their metropolitan rivals. On Sunday, Jan. 26 they’ll play an afternoon game against the New Jersey Devils. Then on Jan. 29, it’s a night game against the Islanders.
In the new Yankee Stadium’s short history, the ballpark has already played host to championship boxing, college football, and elite European soccer teams. But neither the Yankee Stadium built in 2009 nor its more storied predecessor across the street ever played host to a hockey game.
The house that George Steinbrenner built should be electric.
“This is one of the rare events that lives up to the hype,” Rangers assistant general manager Jeff Gorton said.
Other outdoor games scheduled for January are a New Year’s Day tilt between Detroit and Toronto at Michigan Stadium, which can hold well over 100,000 fans for football, and a game at Dodger Stadium featuring the Kings and the Ducks.
In March, Chicago will play host to Pittsburgh at Wrigley Field and Vancouver will play host to Ottawa at B.C. Place. The NHL expects to sell every ticket.
Even if it expects to hear that it’s diluting the spectacle by making it more commonplace.
“What happens is, fans get connected to the game in ways they never imagined,” Bettman said. “Fans love attending this game. We don’t feel we’re doing too many of them.”
The ballpark seats about 54,000 for football, and though the rink will be oriented on the field differently, most of the seats should remain usable for hockey. The Yankees outlined where they expected the rink to go on the field Thursday, describing an ice surface that would go diagonally across the infield from first base to third, behind the mound.
Other than skating on top of where Derek Jeter - when he’s healthy - dives for ground balls, and doing it in front of 50,000 screaming fans in the Bronx, it’ll be just like the pond hockey that players grew up playing.
“Where you had the most fun was outside,” Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said.