By Barry Janoff
April 7, 2013: The NHL today confirmed that it would stage its next outdoor Bridgestone Winter Classic in Michigan University Stadium on Jan. 1, 2014, and that the participants would be the host Detroit Red Wings and visiting Toronto Maple Leafs.
The game and surrounding events, most taking place in and around Detroit's Comerica Park and Joe Louis Arena, actually are a redux of the events scheduled for Jan. 1, 2013, but which were wiped out due to the NHL lockout. The conflict between the NHL and the NHL Players Assn. cost the league 510 games — about 41% of the current season — as well as crown jewel events such as the Winter Classic and the All-Star Game.
The Hockeytown Winter Festival, a plethora of fan-specific activities which has been title sponsored by SiriusXM and has played host to activations by many of the NHL's marketing partners, will also be rescheduled for the two weeks prior to the Winter Classic.
The Bridgestone Winter Classic will air on NBC.
In addition, HBO's reality-type series, 24/7, again will be filmed and air prior to the Winter Classic, this year with behind-the-scenes action featuring the Red Wings and Maple Leafs.
"This was the concept from last year and we said the next Winter Classic would be between these two teams in The Big House and that's exactly what is happening," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said during a media conference on April 7 held in Joe Louis Arena. "This is a huge event, and no matter when it would be played and under whatever circumstances we had nothing but great anticipation for it. The combination of the Winter Festival and the game itself at The Big House is just going to be phenomenal."
The Winter Classic and sibling outdoor Heritage Classic have become so popular that the NHL has been considering adding a second outdoor game in the U.S. Fans would be the beneficiary, but so too would the league, which reaps financial rewards from marketing partners, the host venue and sales of related merchandise.
“We’re aware of the tremendous interest, and obviously you can’t ignore the interest,” Bettman said. “We’ve been thinking about it . . . Putting aside its national impact, when you see what it does locally, it’s incredible. It’s no secret that lots of cities and lots of teams have said, ‘We really want one of these.’ ”
According to analysts, the second outdoor game could take place at Dodger Stadium, which would be the equivalent of the NFL holding the upcoming Super Bowl XLVIII in MetLife Stadium in New Jersey this February. The NFL has been getting tremendous advance press for its decision to hold the game in a northern, open-air venue in winter. The NHL would garner interest from casual and non-hockey fans and media by holding an outdoor game in February in Los Angeles, when the temperature averages in the mid- to upper 60s.
The Super Bowl in New Jersey has opened up the potential for other NFL cities previously not considered in the conversation to host the big game, including Denver, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. An outdoor in Los Angles could potentially do the same for the NHL.
The outdoor Winter Classic has been held in Ralph Wilson Stadium, Buffalo (2008); Wrigley Field, Chicago (2009); Fenway Park, Boston (2010); Heinz Field, Pittsburgh (2011); and Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia (2012).
PepsiCo's AMP Energy drink was title sponsor for the first Winter Classic. Bridgestone has been title sponsor since then.
"Putting aside its national impact, when you see what it does locally, it’s incredible. It’s no secret that lots of cities and teams have said, ‘We really want one of these.’ ”
“It’s not necessarily a new conversation,” John Collins, COO for the NHL, said during the media conference. “We’ve been looking at this and talking about it for a while. But I think now we’re looking at it real hard.”
Critics say that multiple outdoor games in the same season would impact the uniqueness of having one game played on New Year's Day, a potential hazard of which the NHL is well aware.
According to Collins, “There are people who say you’ll dilute what is a good, special thing. No one would be more concerned about not screwing up a good thing than we would be.”
Collins also stressed the benefits of multiple outdoor games.
“We’ve always said, ‘How do we get to more markets and share this experience?'" said Collins. "We know that there are a lot of markets where the concept of an outdoor regular-season game would be magical and really fantastic, but they may not be markets that would really carry the weight of a nationally televised Jan. 1 game, so they may not get there.
"Clearly," Collins emphasized, "there’s a demand and an opportunity.”
The NHL's future not only includes the Winter Classic, but the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Negotiations to have NHL players participate, as they did at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, will reach a significantly critical juncture this week when members of the NHL, NHLPA, the International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation meet to discuss various Olympic-related issues.
Both Collins and Bettman said they were looking at the role the Winter Classic and other other jewel events would have on the future of the league.
“I think it’s all within the context of, ‘How do we make the game bigger? How do we drive more revenue? How do we see our world for the next five, ten years?,'" said Collins.
"In terms of the ancillary events, I think we have the ability to do more and do some better planning," said Bettman. "We want to make sure that this event is as strong and as solid and as big as it can be. Everything we're doing is in pursuit of that."
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