Future of the Winter Classic: Where does NHL go from here?

The Winter Classic at The Big House was a record-breaking, rousing success. It’s one of those events that makes you wonder if the NHL has reached the pinnacle for this gimmick: Can it get better than the Detroit Red Wings, the Toronto Maple Leafs, a divided house of 105,000 and frigid snowy weather?

That’s the challenge for NHL COO John Collins and the League’s braintrust, as they look ahead to the next several years of the New Year’s Day games.

We made some projections two years ago after the Detroit game was announced, but the Stadium Series changed things. Yankee Stadium, for example, will be filled twice by the New York Rangers this season.

Knowing what we know now, here’s a projection for the next four Winter Classics?

2015: Washington

This one is obviously ready to roll, as the Washington Capitals have been named the hosts for the 2015 game. The NHL has scouted several venues in the D.C. area.

While I’ll continue to pound the “Baltimore Winter Classic” drum like Dave Grohl, it’s probably not going to happen due to the politics involved with D.C. fans and because Mark Lerner, owner of the Washington Nationals and a part owner of the Capitals, would never allow Peter Angelos to have the game at Camden Yards.

So it appears Nationals Park is the logical choice for the venue; but who’s the opponent?

The Philadelphia Flyers have been mentioned the most, and confirmed by some, but they’re a two-time Winter Classic team; plus, would HBO want two clubs that have already been featured on 24/7 in the last three seasons back on for Season 4? (This might also affect the New York Rangers’ participation.)

If the NHL wants some fresh(er) blood in the game, but a team whose fans might still travel to D.C. for the game, you’re looking at the Boston Bruins.

If the NHL really wanted to make things interested, they’d put the game at Nationals Park (which local fans could sell out) and go West for the opponent: The Los Angeles Kings or the Chicago Blackhawks.

Hey, the White House would still have a Blackhawks fan in office.

Then again, for Chicago…

2016: Minnesota

It’s becoming criminal that in Minnesota hasn’t hosted a game, and the Big House Winter Classic was a reminder that the elements do make the game experience more satisfying.

The Minnesota Wild pushed hard for the 2015 game, and the Minnesota Twins’ ownership has had preliminary talks with the NHL about holding the game at Target Field.

The Wild aren’t a marquee team; that said, a lot can change in two years, especially with the assemblage of young talent on the team (along with Parise and Suter).

But the real draw for the NHL, besides the weather, would be the chance to bring this traveling circus of hockey nostalgia and celebration to “The State Of Hockey”, where college games and high school games would no doubt be a part of a massive, multi-site celebration that could include TCF Bank Stadium at the University of Minnesota as well.

As for the opponent … well, who wouldn’t want to see a Winnipeg Jets invasion of Minnesota for this game? Alas, the NHL is never putting that matchup on Jan. 1, so the obvious answer is for the Chicago Blackhawks to be the other team in the mix.

Which would put Toews, Kane and Sharp on “24/7.” Which we like very much.

2017: Toronto

Sportsnet reported that the NHL and MLSE are in serious talks to bring the Classic to a renovated BMO Field in Toronto for an event that would mark the Maple Leafs’ centennial. It would be a massive, city-wide celebration of hockey, making up for the fact that the actual venue for the game is less-than-iconic.

The opponent? The Buffalo Sabres are a geographic fit. The Boston Bruins are an Original Six blood rival, and would be a great “in” for U.S. fans. But let’s assume the Bruins get the Washington game for a moment; doesn’t this just lead us to one answer?

The Montreal Canadiens.

Throw out the manual, rewrite the rules, ratings be damned, hope that HBO doesn’t mind an all-Canadian season. Leafs. Habs. The Winter Classic on Toronto’s 100th birthday. Make it so.

2018: Happy Valley

The Penguins are playing in Solider Field this season and are likely to get a game at PNC Park as some point, as the NHL loves that venue. But the dream remains a Battle of Pennsylvania at Penn State University, with Penguins and Flyers fans filling Beaver Stadium and creating one of the most contentious atmospheres in Classic history.

John Collins addressed this game via Sports On Earth recently:

The fun part of it is listening to fans talk about where they'd like to see a game," he says. "You know, Pittsburgh-Philadelphia out at Penn State is one of those that always shows up. People have talked about doing something out at the frozen tundra out at Lambeau."

Collins didn't necessarily say that the league was considering the two venues he mentioned, but staging a game in either would mean a willingness to go into markets that don't actually have an NHL team.

Well, technically they don’t. But the state does. Two, in fact.

Where do you see the Winter Classic headed on the next few seasons?