December 16, 2009
The moment it became obvious that the 2008 Winter Classic at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo was a success, the question soon became, "How long until we do one of these at Yankee Stadium?" In fact, according to then New York Islanders-PR man and current Fanhouse writer, Chris Botta, the Islanders had been working with the NHL and the New York Yankees to play the first Winter Classic at the Stadium long before the idea of an annual outdoor game was even thought of. The New York Rangers were always a discussed opponent, but NBC's desire to stretch their ratings outside of the New York market put and end to the idea of a "Battle of New York".
In 2008, last-ditch efforts were made to close out old Yankee Stadium with the 2009 Winter Classic game, but issues with construction and the winterization of underground pipes were main factors in passing over the venue.
We've now seen a football stadium and two legendary baseball stadiums chosen as Winter Classic sites. None have been in the New York City area and it's only a matter a time before the NHL is housing 50,000-plus New Yorker's nursing hangovers from the previous night's celebrations in the biggest television market in America.
But if the reality of a Yankee Stadium Winter Classic comes to fruition, will it necessarily be on New Year's Day?
A wrinkle was thrown into the Yankee Stadium/Winter Classic/New Year's Day plans in September when it was announced that the Stadium would be hosting a college bowl game beginning next December through 2013 sometime between Christmas Day and New Year's Day. The game will pit teams from the Big 12 and Big East, with the possibility of Notre Dame being added to the mix depending on how the bowl game berths are divvied out.
This is a problem if you're planning on the NHL hosting a hockey game on New Year's Day in the next few seasons. Even if the bowl game was played on Christmas Day, that would give the NHL six days to prepare not only the rink, but also the stadium to their standards and the Winter Classic isn't an event, especially in New York, that the League will look to rush in and out of quickly. As we're seeing in Boston, the NHL wants to use their portable rink in as many entertaining and profitable ways possible. Not to mention the bowl game organizers would have to breakdown the field in a given amount of time to allow Dan Craig and his crew to get to work. Two high-profile events being held on the same field in such a short period of time would also be a big concern for the Yankees, who do not want to have their maintenance people fixing divots in the field in the months before Opening Day.
The NHL told us that they have a seven-day build out plan for their Winter Classic venues, so Yankee Stadium on New Year's Day between 2011-2013 seems like a fantasy.
If the New York area is at the top of the 2011 Winter Classic list, does the NHL decide to use the new 82,500-seat Giants Stadium opening in 2010? What about Citi Field, home of the New York Mets, which can seat 41,800? These are viable options for the League if they want to keep their New Year's Day tradition alive - one that is the right choice to conquer with college football moving away from that date more and more each year.
Another question to think about is the chance of double dipping. Is the NHL willing to wait until 2014 before putting a Winter Classic at the home of the reigning World Series champions or would they think about playing at an alternate New York venue in 2011 and then revisit the idea of Yankee Stadium when their bowl game agreement ends? Or if they are hellbent on having the game in the Bronx, does the Winter Classic occur on a day other than New Year's for one year, like say, the weekend between the NFL's conference championship games and the Super Bowl (if it's moved back to its original date of after the season) or maybe a Saturday afternoon in February?
In the meantime, teams are lining up to get a crack at hosting the game. The Minnesota Wild have expressed interest and held talks with the NHL about hosting a Winter Classic and will have the new Target Field ready to go next year along with the new TCF Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus. Beaver Stadium at Penn State University has long been discussed about hosting a Pittsburgh Penguins-Philadelphia Flyers game, but there would be a large outrage if Sidney Crosby(notes) is featured in the Winter Classic twice before Alex Ovechkin(notes) gets his opportunity to sport a Washington Capitals toque outdoors. Michigan Stadium, Spartan Stadium and Ford Field are other top U.S.-based options. Not to mention the numerous venues in Canada if the NHL decides on an American/Canadian doubleheader.
The NHL has its formula for a successful Winter Classic event: star power plus good/legendary venue plus ideal weather conditions equals success. Having the New York market gone untouched through three games could prove to be worthwhile in the long run. With each year and successful Winter Classic, the game s turning into an annual tradition and slowly becoming the premier sports event on New Year's Day. We're not far off from the pairing of Yankee Stadium with hockey and that marriage could be what puts the event over the top.