The NHL Moves Outside

Talking to the man responsible for returning hockey to the great outdoors

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David Guralnick / Detroit News / AP

The Detroit Red Wings skate during practice on the the outdoor hockey rink at Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers baseball team, on Dec. 18, 2013, in Detroit.

On New Year’s Day, 114,000 fans will fill the University of Michigan football stadium but they won’t be there to root on the Maize and Blue. The Jan. 1 event marks the beginning of six outdoor contests for the National Hockey League this season, stretching from New York City’s Yankee Stadium to Chicago’s Soldier Field and Vancouver’s BC Place to even palm-tree rich Los Angeles.

As the NHL fights for attention from U.S. sports fans, the league is hoping the new outdoor tradition, started in 2008, will provide some much needed excitement. And in case the action on the ice isn’t enough, the league is recruiting the Zac Brown Band among others to perform.

TIME talked to Don Renzulli, a veteran of past Super Bowl productions and the NHL’s executive vice president of events, about the league’s new strategy.

How do you make an NHL event more than just a hockey game?

Look at what we are doing with outdoor games; you can do so much more than in a normal arena. We can do anthems, big flags and small kids skating on auxiliary ice. We can bring in entertainment pre-game and during intermissions. We are able to integrate more than just sport, but an entertainment aspect similar to a Super Bowl.

Can you make the games appeal to people who aren’t hockey fans?

The whole concept behind the outdoor games is that it is how a lot of us learned to skate, outside on ice. We recreated that and set up a small rink that we put little kids on. We are getting the people that are coming to tailgate, like at a football game. We have a spectator plaza that introduces fans to our partners’ products. If they have never taken a slapshot in their life, we put a stick in their hand. We put live music out there. When you get inside you see more of a spectacle than just a regular game. If you are not a big fan, we get you happy by seeing a band or listening to music.

Will outdoor games continue to grow?

I think it is what the fans have asked for. We did one game in ’08 and once that caught on teams wanted to participate. We want to hit as many markets as we can. We can hit all the cold-weather cities and jumping out to L.A. will give us a better understanding of how many markets we can take the games to.

How do these outdoor games compare to running a Super Bowl?

They are smaller, but there is overlap. The Super Bowl is a mammoth event, but this continues to get bigger each year. A lot of things we are doing exactly the same as we did on a Super Bowl. The biggest misconception is the NFL does all those events, but they put on the game and have a few parties. All the other things surrounding the game are their partners, such as Anheuser-Busch doing a number of concerts. That just adds to the largeness of the Super Bowl. (The NHL’s) partners are starting to get engaged. The spectator plaza is growing, there will be over 700 at a pregame party and the Zac Brown Band is performing in Joe Louis Arena on Dec. 31 [Detroit is 40 miles from Ann Arbor]. It is not exactly replicating what a Super Bowl is, but we are building our own event.

Why the importance placed on stadium events?

The Stanley Cup is our premier event, but we don’t know where it is going until a week prior. We can’t plan well in advance. The Winter Classic and outdoor games, we have time to sit back and look at what they are and what they want to be. We can plan in advance and in a lot of sense that is what the Super Bowl is. They are three to four years out understanding the cities. We aren’t there yet, but we are working on it and will understand more markets going forward.