March 28, 2010
The success of the Winter Classic has made the annual event something every NHL team wants to be a part of. A cash cow for the league, and ratings bonanza for television partner NBC, its popularity has led to talk of a Canadian outdoor match up at some point next season. Given NBC's involvement as broadcaster of the Winter Classic in the U.S., there's little chance of seeing a Canadian team involved in that game, but an outdoor doubleheader is a possibility for January 1, 2011 or on a different date.
As for who will be involved in the 2011 Winter Classic, there are several teams who've expressed interest in hosting the game and some have submitted bids to the NHL. An official announcement won't be made until mid-July when the NHL's 2010-11 schedule is released, but Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports today that the game is looking like it will head to Pittsburgh and add a new twist to the Sidney Crosby(notes) / Alex Ovechkin(notes) rivalry:
"A few details still have to be addressed, but things are falling into place for the Penguins and Washington to play the NHL's 2011 Winter Classic at Heinz Field Jan. 1.
There is no word on when an official announcement will come. The NHL traditionally does not make one until mid-summer, around the time the coming season's schedule is released.
Neither the Penguins nor the league will confirm that the game will played here."
The NHL had plenty of preparation time in Fenway Park and Wrigley Field the past two years, but putting the game on in an NFL stadium could be a hectic task given the schedule runs through January. Molinari reports, however, that the Steelers' schedule can be tweaked to allow for the NHL's two-week build-out plan for the rink and the rest of the setup for the stadium.
Because of the possibility of interfering with the Steelers' regular season schedule, PNC Park, home of the Pirates, was originally thought to be the venue if the game was awarded to Pittsburgh, but the seating capacity of Heinz Field would allow the NHL to pack 65,050 fans inside and the two hated rivals battle.
Many fans will probably ask, "Why would the NHL choose the Penguins again over other teams who haven't been involved yet?"
The answer is a pretty simple one.
The decision to have the Washington Capitals involved isn't a surprise given that they were in the mix for the game this year at Fenway Park, but ended up being left out due to NBC's concerns over television ratings. Despite those fears, it was only a matter of time before Ovechkin was involved in a Winter Classic as shown by rumors last month that the Capitals were to possibly host at Nationals Park next January. If NBC and the NHL have the opportunity to showcase Crosby and Ovechkin, the two biggest stars in hockey, in the League's premier annual event outside of the Stanley Cup playoffs, then it's going to happen. NBC's ratings for Philadelphia-Boston this year were down a bit, but were still the second best for a regular season game since 1996. The minor drop exposed two things. First, a strong match up is a necessity. The Flyers and Bruins weren't exactly lighting up the Eastern Conference standings at the time and still aren't almost three months later. Second, there was no star power for NBC to market; so instead, Fenway Park became the focal point. Casual sports fans need to be drawn in for more than just the spectacle of the event; they need a reason to stick around.
We saw this past Wednesday in a third regular season meeting this season between Pittsburgh and Washington that the hype machine is still in full effect for Crosby and Ovechkin. Now, imagine the NHL having five months to market Crosby versus Ovechkin in the Winter Classic, maybe the game gets an added jolt if the two should meet again in the playoffs this season. It's too much of a no-brainer for NBC and the NHL to pass up. Yeah, there'll be some grumbling from fans and other NHL teams about the Penguins getting the spotlight again in the Winter Classic and for continuing to shove only Crosby and Ovechkin down fans' throats, while failing to market other stars around the League. But given the ratings when the two meet, along with the extra mainstream media attention a Pittsburgh-Washington Winter Classic would receive, the decision was inevitable and in the end, would be the right choice.