NHL outdoor games: Who'll get one?
After years of wheel-greasing, deal-making and good ol’ fashioned patience, the Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche are set to host their first ever outdoor games on Feb. 21 and 27 respectively. They’ll be the 15th and 16th NHL teams to take the game outside, leaving 14 clubs still looking for their opportunity to stage one of the hockey season’s signature events.
When will their turn come? At this point, there are no guarantees, but it appears that at least three will get their first turn during the 2016-17 season.
The rest? It could be awhile.
Although the league works to spread prestige opportunities like the All-Star Game and the entry draft evenly, the outdoor games are a different animal that involve a number of moving pieces working in perfect harmony ... and not every organization is up to that challenge. At least, not at the moment.
Here then is a look at those 14 markets, and what might, or might not, lie ahead.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Pros: center of the hockey universe (admit it); Original Six
Cons: lack of ideal setting
Hard to believe Hogtown hasn’t played host to an outdoor game, but the wait is nearly over. It’s not yet been made official, but reports suggest the Maple Leafs will host the Red Wings, Canadiens or Rangers on Jan. 1, 2017 in a Heritage Classic/Stadium Series event that coincides with the 100th anniversary of the franchise. The game is expected to be played at BMO Field, the home of the MLS Toronto FC. The stadium is currently under renovation, but expected to hold around 40,000 fans with the addition of temporary seating. Not ideal in a town that could probably sell 100,000 tickets, but it’ll do.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
Pros: large, legacy market
Cons: dwindling fan base
The last of the remaining 1967 expansion clubs to host an outdoor game is expected to get its chance next season. Although there has been no official announcement yet, the league will reportedly stage the 2017 Winter Classic at Busch Stadium, home of baseball’s Cardinals, on Jan. 2 between the Blues and the Blackhawks. The date is being moved away from New Year's Day to avoid conflicting with the final day of the NFL regular season ... not that that would be an issue in St. Louis.
Pros: rabid fan base
Cons: climate could be a problem
After years of promises and complications, Jets reportedly are set to host the Oilers in a Heritage Classic matchup at Investors Group Field, the home of the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers, in late-October 2016. It will be the earliest date yet for an outdoor game, but given how quickly the weather can turn bitterly cold in Winterpeg, the timing is right. And so is the opponent. The two have a rivalry that dates back to the inaugural season of the World Hockey Association and they joined the NHL together in 1979. They were regular playoff foes in the days of the old Smythe Division, a relationship that might get some play if the teams stage an alumni game as part of the festivities.
DOWN THE ROAD
Pros: history; location
Cons: fear of trying something new
The Senators have petitioned for years to bring an outdoor game to Canada’s capital, and those efforts could pay off soon. The city is pushing for a December 2017 date to coincide with Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations and the 100th anniversary of the NHL’s first game, which was played in the city, and there’s a chance that they might get their way. There has been talk of holding it at TD Place at Lansdowne Park, the home of the CFL’s Redblacks, but that’s a fallback to a much more intriguing option: a pop-up “stadium” on the lawn of Parliament Hill. League officials and engineers have visited the site to assess its viability, and there is widespread belief that it could work. It would certainly make for a spectacle—exactly the sort of appeal these events thrive on.
Pros: most avid fans in the game
Cons: absence of ideal location
If a pop-up stadium works in Ottawa, it might open the way for the Canadiens to host the game they’ve been eyeing since 2008 when they wanted an outdoor event in conjunction with the 2009 All-Star Game. If not, they could stage it at Percival Molson Memorial Stadium, home of the CFL’s Alouettes. The facility seats 24,000 spectators, just 3,000 more than the Molson Centre, so costs would be an issue. That said, the passion of the city’s fans is unmatched around the league, as is the legacy and reputation of the club. At this point, it likely boils down to how badly the team wants to host it.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Pros: one of the league’s most exciting teams
Cons: warm or rainy weather challenges
The Bolts don’t appear to be actively pursuing a game, but it’s easy to imagine one actually working on the Gulf Coast while Tampa Bay is among the top Stanley Cup contenders, especially with a strong Canadian or Northeastern foe to draw in the snowbird crowd. Nearby Raymond James Stadium, home of the NFL’s Buccaneers, might be a little ambitious, but who doesn’t want to watch a hockey game that offers a pirate ship with working cannons as a backdrop?
BACK OF THE LINE
Pros: past event success
Cons: local interest; setting
Put it to a vote and fans and media would give Nashville any event it wanted after the job the city did hosting this year’s All-Star Weekend. But is Music City ready to headline a show this big? Probably not. There’s a solid (and growing) foundation of fans in the area, but even if the Predators allowed Blackhawks supporters to buy single-game tickets (something they don’t do now at Bridgestone Arena), it’s hard to imagine demand meeting supply at a place like LP Field.
Pros: last of the California teams to get outdoor game
Cons: soft market; location
Their game against the local rival Kings at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles proved that outdoor hockey could work in Southern California, but it also used up the one location, and the one rivalry, that really make sense for the market. Angel Stadium could host a game, but it doesn’t have the romantic allure of Chavez Ravine. The Ducks will get their chance, but they may be waiting for a bit.
Pros: success of past NHL events
Cons: location, timing
The Canes have been excellent hosts for both the NHL draft and All-Star Game, so an outdoor event seems like the next obvious step. Hard to see it happening any time soon, though. A decade of on-ice failure has dampened the hockey enthusiasm of local sports fans, and it could be years before this team is in a position to energize the base. And while there are a few options to host the event, there isn’t any one place that’s particularly compelling. Carter-Finley Stadium, home of the NC State Wolfpack, is probably the best choice, but it’s not going to attract the channel flipper.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
Pros: iconic stadium
Cons: lack of star power, zero national profile
Columbus might have more appeal as a host than you’d imagine. While the Blue Jackets aren‘t particularly successful and are still working on fan engagement, the city proved it could handle a premier event with the 2015 All-Star Game. Columbus also offers a compelling location in Ohio Stadium with its 100,000-plus capacity, giving it a chance to rival the all-time mark of 105,491 set in Ann Arbor in 2014. The key would be finding the right opponent. Detroit would allow the game to play up the longstanding Michigan vs. Ohio rivalry. The Metropolitan Division rival Penguins might work as well, as long as Sidney Crosby is still in the picture. And hey, who wouldn’t want to hear the cannon roar outdoors?
Pros: largest market to not yet host a game, iconic stadium
Cons: insignificant fan base, lack of rival
Stars owner Tom Gaglardi spoke this week about his team's desire to host an outdoor game, and he made it clear that he’s in no hurry for that to happen. “We want to have some playoff success and become a perennial playoff team and build our market” he said. Smart approach. AT&T Stadium, the humongous home of the Dallas Cowboys, would be an eye-catching location, but these Stars would struggle to fill it. They’re only now gaining back fans they lost after so many seasons of ineptitude, and would benefit from a few years of Cup contention in order to fully galvanize their base. Give ’em time and an opponent that travels well (Chicago, Detroit) and they’ll make it a success.
Pros: compelling setting, big game experience
Cons: diminutive hockey footprint
The Coyotes expressed an interest in hosting an outdoor game in 2013 when there was talk of pairing the Winter Classic with the Super Bowl. Frankly, that’s probably the only way this happens. This team has to prove it is viable in this market before it starts thinking big. That may happen during the next five to seven years, especially Arizona’s talented kids deliver on their full potential, but that's still a ways off. The area boasts two viable facilities: Chase Field (photo above), the home of baseball’s Diamondbacks, and University of Phoenix Stadium, home to the NFL's Cardinals, so a WC/SB combo could work. And both feature retractable roofs. That’s not ideal, but its nice to have that option when the romance of staging a game in the desert gives way to the reality.
Pros: an event to stimulate the masses, the novelty of tropical hockey
Cons: do the masses want to be stimulated?
Never say never, but the Panthers rank as the longest of long shots to host an outdoor game. Interest, though improving, simply isn't there at the moment. According to SportsBusinessDaily, Panthers games on Fox Sports Florida are averaging a 0.20 rating or roughly 3,000 homes this season, both low marks for the NHL. And while the product is improving on the ice, the fan base needs time to heal after years of mistreatment by previous ownership. As with Dallas, it's just going to take time. Marlins Park, which seats around 36,000 and offers a retractable roof, might be intimate enough to make a viable location down the road.
IN CASE YOU WERE WONDERING
NEW YORK RANGERS
Pros: one of the league's marquee teams
Cons: aren't allowed to host one
Under normal circumstances, the Broadway Blueshirts would have been among the first teams chosen to host an NHL outdoor game. The problem: Their contract with Madison Square Garden prevents them from receiving income as the home team in any other venue. That’s why they were eventually designated, in 2014, as the visitors in the back-to-back games against their local rivals, the New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders, at Yankee Stadium. Did anyone notice that subtlety? Both tilts felt like home games.