Just like last season's Fenway Park Winter Classic, the cat left the bag on the 2011 edition months before the official announcement. We've known since March that the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals were near-locks for the outdoor game.
It was just a matter of venue, and the venue will be Heinz Field on Jan. 1, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
The Penguins will face Washington in the NHL's 2011 Winter Classic Jan. 1 at Heinz Field. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is expected to make a formal announcement about that, along with several other high-profile league events, during a press conference in Chicago Friday.
What struck us when this news leaked several weeks ago was the backlash. Check the comments on Sean Leahy's post: There's a strong contingent of hockey fans that are Ovechkin vs. Crosby'd out, and felt that the Penguins getting a second outdoor game (they previously played back in
2007 2008 vs. the Buffalo Sabres at Ralph Wilson Stadium) before a team like the New York Rangers gets a first was outlandish.
Bottom line: The Winter Classic isn't for the die-hards. It's for the casual fans hooked by the spectacle of outdoor hockey, and Sidney Crosby(notes) vs. Alex Ovechkin(notes) means something to the SportsCenter-watching casual sports fan that's just looking to nurse a hangover and watch sports on New Year's Day.
Winter Classic ratings were down last January for the Philadelphia Flyers vs. the Boston Bruins at Fenway Park. This was because we had two losing (at the time) teams without many marketable players, and because the "baseball nostalgia" card had just been played at Wrigley Field the previous season.
But if the NHL wanted to ensure the bloom wasn't off the frozen rose, the Penguins and the Capitals in an outdoor game was the easiest -- and some could argue laziest and safest -- solution.
As we wrote back in January: "Ovechkin vs. vs. Crosby in 2011, no matter the venue, and this ratings hiccup is ancient history." Especially with a new television contract negotiation coming up, and the Winter Classic being a major chip in that poker game.
Like the move? Loathe the move? Either way: Bet you're watching it next January.