PITTSBURGH -- The NHL's Winter Classic has evolved since its inception from a celebration of the game to a marketing bonanza for the League and its partners. That's not a bad thing, but while the game may elicit memories for some of playing shinny on their backyard rink of frozen pond, it's also the biggest way (other than the Stanley Cup final) for the NHL to market it's product to a mainstream audience instead of just hardcore puckheads.
As a fourth Winter Classic passes us by and ice guru Dan Craig begins to prepare for the Heritage Classic in Calgary next month, the next few weeks will consist of thinking towards who we'll be watching next New Year's Day.
Pierre LeBrun said the Linc in Philadelphia is the current frontrunner for the 2012 game. But we favor another location and matchup.
While Wyshynski may desire to see the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers go neutral and battle it out on the frozen ice rink of Lambeau Field in Wisconsin, I think we should see those teams on New Year's Day 2012, but not in the land of cheeseheads, but the home of the NFL's New York Giants and Jets.
After the jump, five reasons why:
1. New York, New York
We've now witnessed four Winter Classics and not one has been played in (or involved) the biggest television market in the country, New York City. OK, technically this Winter Classic idea would be in New Jersey considering the location of New Meadowlands Stadium, but you know the NHL's promotional machine will market New York and not the home of Tony Soprano.
Despite the NHL's best efforts to try and get themselves into old Yankee Stadium for one of the previous Classics, logistics in the old Stadium and a college bowl game tying up things through 2014 in the new Stadium have put a damper on hockey in the Bronx for now. Rather than wait another three years for the opportunity, it's time for the NHL to escape to New York, er, New Jersey.
2. The Great One
Aside from the weather concerns and the game itself, the biggest buzz around the Winter Classic weekend was the return of Mario Lemieux to the ice for the Penguins in the alumni game. Imagine the buzz if Wayne Gretzky made his second outdoor alumni game appearance and played half the game in a Rangers jersey and the second half in the old silver and black of the Kings? The tickets for a Great One comeback would sell just as quickly as those for Mario's on Friday.
3. Go West, Young Man
Each Winter Classic has featured teams not more than six hours drive from one another, as well as zero teams west of Chicago. Every NHL team now wants to host their own Winter Classic or at least be a part of one, including those on the west coast that often feel left out. With the Winter Classic a roaring success attracting mainstream buzz, it's time for the NHL and its TV partner (whomever it will be next year) to show the Western Conference some love with the inclusion of the up-and-coming Kings.
4. More Seats = More $$$
The cozy setting of a Winter Classic inside a baseball stadium is nice and nostalgic, but there are less than a handful of parks that would capture that kind of feeling and Fenway Park and Wrigley Field have already been used as venues. The only other option would be new Yankee Stadium just for the sake of saying a hockey game is being played at the home of the New York Yankees, but we already know that possibility won't open up for three more years.
Considering what a cash cow the Winter Classic has become, being able to sell tickets to 70,000-plus fans to not only the game itself, but also future alumni games -- as NHL Sr. Vice President of Events Don Renzulli noted last week -- will make the event an even bigger marketing attraction.
No matter how the NHL's television rights are divvied up next year, the Winter Classic will be the centerpiece of the negotiations. Given that, whether we're watching hockey on New Year's Day afternoon 2012 on NBC, ABC or whatever channel in the U.S., the rights holder will want to maximize the opportunity as best they can, so why not get the two biggest media markets involved?
And before the ideas about a Minnesota-Dallas or any other nostalgia-based Winter Classic matchup arise, remember one thing: it's not just the NHL making the decision on who's involved. NBC has their say in order for them to achieve the highest ratings possible and so will whomever gets the rights to the game next year. While some ideas might be great for the hardcore hockey fan, the goal of the TV partner is to be able to market it to the mainstream fan.