As Puck Daddy reported last week, the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maples are on at the Big House at the University of Michigan for the 2013 Winter Classic.
Ansar Khan of MLive.com writes that the deal has been "finalized," marking the first time a Canadian team will compete in the NHL's U.S.-based outdoor hockey event — albeit one with no less than eight American players on the roster.
The Red Wings lobbied to have the game at Comerica Park, but the NHL couldn't pass up an opportunity to hold this annual outdoor spectacle at "The Big House," where it is expected to attract a record crowd in excess of 110,000.
To appease Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch, a rink will be constructed at Comerica Park. The home of the Detroit Tigers will host other events leading up to the Winter Classic, including the alumni game and possibly the Great Lakes Invitational.
Too late to flip-flop the venues for the alumni game and the Classic? Because that game could probably draw 200,000 fans based on the buzz …
So how did the world suddenly become safe for a Canadian team in the Winter Classic?
It's The Venue, Stupid
The modern, cookie-cutter stadia that housed the last two Winter Classics didn't exactly excite the casual fan — especially Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, which was an afterthought as a venue during the marketing of the 2012 Classic.
While The Big House has housed big hockey games before, it's a venue that's bound to attract casual viewers eager to see and hear over 110,000 fans react to an NHL game.
What was the League's most successful marketing campaign in recent years? "History Will Be Made."
The NHL and its television partners can sell that point hard for the 2013 Classic.
Geography and 110,000 Good Reasons
The problem with The Big House: How do you fill over 110,000 seats while (a) charging Winter Classic prices and (b) in an economically challenge market like Detroit?
By inviting the neighbo(u)rs over, of course.
Toronto fans will converge en masse for both the Classic and the alumni game, picking up every ticket that isn't sold to a Red Wings local. While Chicago and Buffalo are both within the same reasonable distance to Detroit, they've both had the pleasure of losing their outdoor hockey virginity.
This is the Maple Leafs' first time. And you're always nervously excited for your first time until those emotions are replaced with shame, embarrassment and disappointment.
It's Not About You On This One, NBC
'Twas a time when the Peacock could dictate terms for the Winter Classic, keeping out a Canadian team out of concern that losing the ratings from one of the two markets in the game would torpedo the overall viewership.
The numbers could take a hit, for sure: This isn't like the Stanley Cup Final, where all of New England helped make up the difference for a Canadian market being on the other side of the ratings equation.
But the ratings are immaterial for this game; and, frankly, they might be for subsequent Classics unless they perilously dip.
Via Puck The Media, the overnights for the Winter Classics on NBC:
2008, Pittsburgh vs. Buffalo, 1/1/08: 2.6
2009, Detroit vs. Chicago, 1/1/09: 2.9
2010, Philadelphia vs. Boston, 1/1/10: 2.6
2011, Washington vs. Pittsburgh, 1/1/11: 2.8
2012, NY Rangers vs. Philadelphia, 1/2/12: 2.4
With a little fluctuation here and there due to scheduling, the game has a dedicated following that's made it a tradition. If the ratings fall with Toronto in the game, so what? NBC can say it was due to a Canadian market, and then everyone forgets about it when the Capitals play the Blackhawks in D.C. on Jan. 1, 2014 (for argument's sake).
But the real reason the ratings don't matter on this one: We're talking about something that, in the end, is going to shatter revenue records for the NHL. The ticket sales, the suite sales, the merchandise sales … the final figures are going to eclipse the gross national product of a few Central American nations.
The NHL is going to be OK with ratings in the U.S. dipping to a 2.0 if it makes enough coin to fund the Coyotes for the next decade. Theoretically, of course.
Brian Burke on HBO 24/7
As we previously reported, regime change at HBO makes next season's "HBO 24/7: The Road To The NHL Winter Classic" an uncertainty. The League wants it. The producers want it. Does HBO?
But if it happened … well, Pension Plan Puppets said it best:
Brian Burke, in answering questions on Twitter, said that he would not allow the Maple Leafs to take part in a 24/7-type series unless the league mandated it. Given the way that fans have enjoyed the two series to date (PIT v WSH, NYR v. PHI) they would be dumb to not tell the Maple Leafs that it is a mandatory part of participation in the Winter Classic. Now, the real question is whether HBO will want to do a 24/7 starring a Canadian team. I think that the Leafs have enough high profile American ties in Brian Burke, Ron Wilson, Mike Komisarek, and Phil Kessel to get it done.
Which brings us to …
The fact that there are so many Americans currently on the Leafs — with perhaps more to come, oh hi Bobby Ryan — might help cure U.S. sports fan xenophobia.
But it's still a Canadian hockey team … and that's the point.
This venue and opponent were tailor-made for the Leafs, and hence a perfect spot to place a Canadian team in the Winter Classic. After five years, the heat was only going to increase on the NHL to allow a nord of da border team into the U.S. game, rather than hold another Heritage Classic.
Just don't tell Gary Bettman this is Canadian appeasement, because when they said that about the 2011 Heritage Classic he said:
BETTMAN: That's absurd. It's baseless. It's someone looking for something on a slow news day, looking for something to write or say, to be critical for no reason. The first outdoor game was the Heritage Classic in Edmonton, and the fact that we managed to pull off a very clever promotional idea and move it into the United States in an available time slot on New Year's Day has nothing to do with the importance of playing an outdoor game in Canada.
As we said in that post:
"Canadian teams whose home television markets won't contribute to NBC's ratings have no home in the Winter Classic (barring a one-shot appearance for the Canadians or Maple Leafs for some Original Six gimmick; we think there's a slim chance for that down the line)."
Slim is in, apparently.
Finally, Keep In Mind This Game May Never Happen
Donald Fehr is running the NHLPA. The players and owners just scuttled realignment in their first labor tussle.
The CBA negotiation could get ugly. Really ugly.
Hopefully the Toronto Maple Leafs Winter Classic doesn't go the way of the Glendale NHL All-Star Game.
But if it does … hey, sorry Canada, we did our best, blame the players, love, Gary …