CHICAGO – The alfresco NHL is officially returning to Chicago. The League announced Wednesday that the Pittsburgh Penguins will play the Chicago Blackhawks outdoors March 1, 2014, at Soldier Field at 8 p.m. (Ticket information is here.)
“We had a great experience with Wrigley,” NHL chief operating officer John Collins said, referring to the 2009 Winter Classic at Wrigley Field. “The ability to bring the Penguins into Solider Field, another one of those iconic venues in Chicago, I think is just going to create an awful lot of enthusiasm and sets up to be just a fantastic event for us.”
But there’s more, and there’s more to it.
The NHL has already announced the Toronto Maple Leafs will face the Detroit Red Wings in the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 at Michigan Stadium.
The League is expected to announce four more outdoor games. Penguins-Blackhawks will be part of the “Stadium Series” along with the Anaheim Ducks vs. the Los Angeles Kings on Jan. 25 at Dodger Stadium, the New York Rangers vs. the New Jersey Devils on Jan. 26 at Yankee Stadium and the Rangers vs. the New York Islanders on Jan. 29 at Yankee Stadium. The Heritage Classic will feature the Ottawa Senators vs. Vancouver Canucks on March 2 at B.C. Place.
Though the NHL has never staged more than two outdoor games in one season before, it has reasons to stage six next season – and it goes beyond high demand among teams and fans. The League wants to go hard in its first full season after the lockout. It wants to capitalize on the hoopla leading up to the New York/New Jersey Super Bowl on Feb. 2.
Assuming the League goes to the Sochi Olympics, it wants to give TV partners NBC and CBC something to promote during the Games and something that will excite fans about the restart of the regular season.
This is a unique situation and doesn’t necessarily mean the NHL will stage six outdoor games every season.
What about players returning from Russia and jumping right into big events in Chicago and Vancouver?
“I’m not sure there’s really any extra wear and tear on the players playing in an outdoor game,” said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly. “I really don’t think it impacts player safety at all. And I will say that the feedback we get from the players’ association on this series and these games, the players love these games, are dying to do it, and while they’re cognizant, as we are, of overdoing it from a business and marketing perspective, the more players who have an opportunity to play in these games the better.”
Many wonder if the NHL is overdoing it, if this is too much of a good thing. When the League staged its first outdoor games – the Heritage Classic in 2003 in Edmonton, the Winter Classic in 2008 in Buffalo – officials were asked if they would ever do more than one per season.
“The answer at the time was no,” Daly said. “But we’ve had the opportunity to see the property grow and what it does for us on a national and local basis, and it becomes an opportunity to create buzz and create visibility for the sport, which is good for us.”
The League makes a distinction between the national and local impact.
The Winter Classic was created to make a national impact in the U.S. and the NHL wants it to continue to have that national impact as its own brand – Jan. 1, NBC. The Heritage Classic also will continue to be its own brand as the Canadian game featuring two Canadian teams.
But seeing how those events have worked in the host markets – from TV ratings to attendance to sponsorships to merchandise sales – Collins said “the impact at the local level is becoming an equal part of the story.”
The Stadium Series doesn’t need to have the same national impact if it has the same local impact. The Blackhawks think the game at Soldier Field will be even bigger than the one at Wrigley. Three teams in the New York market will be involved at Yankee Stadium. There will be a night game in L.A. not long after the Kings hoisted the Stanley Cup and their day in the sun was dimmed by the lockout.
“I think the Stadium Series idea is all about tapping into that local passion, which you experience when you’re there,” Collins said.
“Let’s tap into that enthusiasm. Let’s light up the markets around hockey as brightly as we can. Let’s create the opportunity to get to more markets, so more markets can experience this game. And let’s create the opportunity to give back to some great markets where we should be back more than once every 10, 15 years.”