Until you're actually on-site for one of these outdoor games, you really can't conceive of the dollar amounts the NHL is printing every January.
The crowds are enormous. Fans walk in already wearing that year's sweaters, and walk out of the game with bags of more swag — if they're patient enough to stand in the long lines for the merch tents. The village of sponsorship tents in front of the stadium are, we imagine, paying a nice sum for the real estate.
This is the reason the Winter Classic will endure for years to come, and the reason why we're probably all delusional about them holding a game some place that can't seat over 40,000 fans. Sorry, Central Park …
(It's also the reason why there are internal debates every season in the NHL about adding more outdoor games to the schedule, and there's a real pull by the money men and push back from the hockey people about that. My theory on how they'll do another one: Include the previous season's Stanley Cup Final teams in some kind of early-season regular-season outdoor game. Maybe even in the home stadium of the winner.)
The worst-kept secret around Citizens Bank Park during the 2012 NHL Winter Classic was that Ilya Bryzgalov is clinically insane.
The second worst-kept secret is that the next Winter Classic will be in Detroit next January.
It's at a point where people associated with the League speak about it with inevitability. In fact, Tom Wilson — President and CEO of Olympia Entertainment, which handles business operations for the Detroit Red Wings — was seen on-site in Philadelphia.
Where will it be held? Who will the Red Wings play? Where does the NHL go after that with its outdoor game?
Winter Classic 2013: Detroit Red Wings vs. Toronto Maple Leafs/St. Louis Blues/California-Based Team
The NHL is keen on having this game at The Big House in Ann Arbor, with the probability of attracting over 100,000 fans to a game if the tickets are priced favorably. But having it at the University of Michigan's stadium means sharing the wealth with someone outside the family.
Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch, meanwhile, is in the family. He also owns and operates Comerica Park, home to the Detroit Tigers. So if it's not in the Big House, it'll be at that house.
There's also a chance for the NHL to turn this into a celebration of hockey in Michigan, with the Great Lakes Invitational rolling the week before the Classic.
As far as opponents go, I get the feeling this is going to be a mold-breaker after three straight Classics featuring predictable Northeast rivalries.
The Maple Leafs would be the first Canadian team in the Classic, which would risk some ratings for NBC but would fulfill the NHL's Original Six jones for this annual event. The more people I talk to, the more think this is a good possibility — especially to quiet Canadian critics writhing with jealousy over the Winter Classic being U.S.-centric.
This would also be a great spot to feature a team from California for the first time: The San Jose Sharks are a natural rival and a good fit here. Joe Thornton on "HBO 24/7" can only be a good thing.
(An aside: The "24/7" Effect is overrated, insofar as setting the matchups in these games. The network told me that they don't have sway over the teams involved; and, frankly, that the future of the series isn't exactly set in concrete after this season. More on that on Wednesday on Puck Daddy.)
Then there are the St. Louis Blues. A safe choice as a division rival and a cold-weather U.S. market. And as we know, you have to play on the road before you get one of these at home …
Winter Classic 2014: Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins/Chicago Blackhawks/California team
The NHL promised Ted Leonsis that the Classic will come to Washington, and we can expect that in 2014.
So — to set the record straight — there has NOT been any communication to us on a formal basis as to a Winter Classic coming to DC in a specific year. I have been told that the Winter Classic will NOT be coming to DC next year though. I have also been assured that because of the size of our fan base — and the beauty of our city — that a Winter Classic would come to Washington DC; at some point in the future. And that is good enough for me.
Also— the idea of a game being played on the Mall has been floated around for many years — it is NOT feasible; there aren't enough common areas to build out seats — and the expense involved to create locker rooms; icestands and studios are prohibitive. The Mall is managed by the National Park Services; as well.
Nationals Park would be the most likely option — another picturesque stadium, but another baseball stadium. FedEx Field would offer capacity, little charm, and the displeasure of working with Daniel Snyder. The National Mall would be amazing from a television standpoint, less so from an tickets sold standpoint. Unless they're priced to high heaven.
My pipe dream is a Winter Classic at "neutral site" Camden Yards, as the Capitals have made inroads into the Baltimore market.
As far as opponents go, the NHL probably wouldn't hesitate to make the Capitals and Penguins the first Winter Classic rematch, given the enthusiasm of the fan bases and their familiarity to the casual fan. (Again, don't worry about the HBO Effect: The Dallas Cowboys have been on Hard Knocks multiple times, too.)
The Blackhawks have yet to be a road team for the Winter Classic. What we'd lose in natural rivalry we'd gain from the overall star-power in this matchup: Provided these teams are still thriving in 2014-15.
If a California team doesn't play in Detroit, this could also be a spot for either the Sharks or the Los Angeles Kings to play in the "OMG can a team from the West Coast actually survive the brutal 50-degree weather of Washington in January?!" game.
Winter Classic 2015: New York Rangers vs. Boston Bruins/Montreal Canadiens/New York Islanders/New Jersey Devils/Buffalo Sabres/Los Angeles Kings
The Winter Classic should finally head to the Big Apple in 2015. Yankee Stadium is the facility the NHL wants, and pretty badly. The Pinstripe Bowl's contract runs through 2013, so who knows about availability in this season.
The N.H.L. has looked at Citi Field, MetLife Stadium, the Yale Bowl and West Point as possible sites, Collins said before the Flyers-Rangers alumni game at Citizens Bank Park Saturday afternoon.
"There are a lot of really great venues in the New York area," Collins said. "Yankee Stadium is obviously a special place, but we can't get in there for the next couple of years" because of college bowl game commitments. The Yankees have held the Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 30 the past two years. The Winter Classic is usually played on Jan. 1, although this time it will be played a day later to avoid television contract conflicts with the N.F.L.
As far as opponents go for the Rangers: The Boston Bruins are, by far, the best fit, as that sports city rivalry makes the one with Philadelphia look like a pillow fight.
If not the Bruins, then the Montreal Canadiens playing in Yankee Stadium — albeit the new one — offers a chance for the kind of gooey nostalgia the NHL loves, as the "New York Yankees of the NHL" come to New York to face the Rangers in the House That Followed The House That Ruth Built.
Would the NHL allow the Islanders or Devils in a Winter Classic? Would they risk loading up on one media market with the opponents? Probably not. The Sabres would offer the geographic rival without the market saturation.
Then there's the inevitable New York vs. Los Angeles matchup. No need to worry if the Kings fans won't travel; there might be one or two New Yorkers down with watching an outdoor game in a local ballpark.
Winter Classic 2016: St. Louis Blues/Minnesota Wild vs. Chicago Blackhawks; or, Colorado Avalanche vs. Detroit Red Wings
This is, obviously, spit-balling here, as no one knows what these teams will look like from a match-up perspective four years from now. But the idea of the Blackhawks playing in St. Louis seems like a perfect fit geographically and environmentally; ditto a Blackhawks visit to Minnesota, which badly wants a game and could probably fill two stadiums with the enthusiasm with which a Winter Classic would be met.
Like Minny, Colorado would offer the type of conditions that put the "winter" in Winter Classic. Finding a foil might prove tough, but the Detroit Red Wings seem the obvious choice.
But that's getting waaaaaay ahead of ourselves. It's four whole years from now! We could be watching the Winter Classic in our flying cars as the Seattle Bigfoots play Avangard Omsk on the friggin' moon …
Where do you see the NHL Winter Classic headed in the near future?