After a Classic success at Wrigley, where does NHL go from here?
Editor's note: Our weekly "Faceoff" features ESPN.com NHL writers Scott Burnside (based in Atlanta) and Pierre LeBrun (based in Toronto), who duke it out over any given hockey topic. Let the games begin!
This week's topic: With another Winter Classic in the books, where does the NHL take its signature event next?
Scott Burnside: Well, my friend, the Winter Classic Part Deux is over, and I think we agree it was an impressive effort by the NHL, the city of Chicago and, of course, the host Chicago Blackhawks. Before we get to "What next?" or "Where next?", what image will stay with you now that it's over?
Pierre LeBrun: Definitely "The Star-Spangled Banner" before the game, the Hawks fans rocking at Wrigley like the old Chicago Stadium days. I don't think I'll ever forget that. You credited all the right people in your opening statement, Scotty, but forgot one important contributor: Mother Nature. Absolutely perfect -- I mean perfect -- weather conditions for the game.
Burnside: Yes, after a couple of days of bright sunshine, the clouds came in at the right time. I ran into John Shannon, the longtime "Hockey Night in Canada" producer who is now in charge of all of the NHL's television efforts, and he said it was as close to perfect as you can get. For me, I enjoyed watching the players come out of their respective clubhouses and make their way to the ice surface. The staff had to help them take their skate guards off as they got to the rink. Anything you can think of that you would have changed?
LeBrun: Yes, the one thing I thought that hurt the event was that a huge boatload of media descended upon Wrigley Field on Dec. 30 and there was nary a player in sight. That's because both teams were in Detroit. I know both teams also felt the same way. Next year, both teams should have two off days before the game and be on site to help build-up the big game. But that's just me nitpicking. It was a sensational event that went off without a glitch. The buzz and the response, both fan-wise and from the corporate sponsorship side, was huge, which once again all but guarantees we'll see the Winter Classic as a permanent fixture each Jan. 1.
Burnside: Which brings us to the question that will become an annual guessing game: where? You and I discussed whether the game will go back to a football stadium or remain in a baseball facility. The NFL sites will always present a problem because the playoffs could jam up the ice-making situation. There are college facilities. NHL Players' Association head Paul Kelly likes the idea of Harvard Stadium, the school's football field, for an outdoor game involving the Bruins. What do you think?
LeBrun: I think Fenway Park is too good to pass up, but as you and I know, the stadium will undergo some work over the next winter or two, so it may not be available until Jan. 1, 2011. I say wait for it. In the meantime, I vote for Penn State -- Flyers hosting the Capitals. Washington owner Ted Leonsis told me this week he'd love to take part in a Winter Classic. That would get superstar Alex Ovechkin involved in a game with the highest TV ratings of the season. Then, on Jan. 1, 2011, if Fenway is available, I say Bruins host the rival Habs. You like?
Burnside: Well, I think the NHL is still keen on making its way to Yankee Stadium. For a while, it looked like the Winter Classic would be the final event in the old Yankee Stadium, but there were all kinds of logistical problems. The new building would still provide plenty of pizzazz, and it would be interesting if another Original Six team in the New York Rangers faced off against the Islanders, Devils or maybe Montreal. One thing I think we can count on is that these events won't be north of the border for a long time. Sorry, Canucks.
LeBrun: If it's at the new Yankee Stadium, then I guess the Winter Classic tickets will be $2,500 apiece. But yes, you are right; the NHL is keen for New York, no question. It's the biggest sports market in North America. You could still involve the Caps in that scenario as well, but expect to hear other teams bidding. I think the Colorado Avalanche are pretty interested. Believe it or not, so are the San Jose Sharks. And the believe-it-or-not rumor this week was a possible game in SoCal involving the Los Angeles Kings. But as our colleague Mark Spector of Rogers Sportsnet argued this week, it's not about the 100,000 crowds. The 40,818 on hand at Wrigley Stadium on Thursday was plenty.
Burnside: I agree. I think the league has to make sure the venues provide compelling story lines that will resonate beyond the two teams. I think it might be fun to see one in San Jose or Los Angeles at some point, but I think there are way more compelling destinations to do before that. Do you think Canadians will be mad that the near-debacle in Edmonton before the lockout may be their only chance to host one of these?
Pierre LeBrun: Eventually, this will make its way north of the border. One idea that's been floated around is perhaps having a double-header Winter Classic one year -- Montreal-Toronto or Calgary-Edmonton in Canada followed by two U.S.-based teams. But again, that's just an idea, nothing is written in stone.
As much as my fellow Canadians might get upset, for the NHL and the NHL Players' Association, this is about selling the game to its biggest TV audience of the year and that's only going to happen in the U.S. I know you touched on this in your column Wednesday, but I think the success of the Winter Classic is really going to overshadow the All-Star Game. The NHL gets a break this season because it's in Montreal and that's going to be a party with the team's 100-year anniversary celebration; but going forward, I honestly believe they should scrap it. Nobody cares. It's a meaningless game. The last two All-Star Games in Dallas and Atlanta were brutal and had no ambiance.
Burnside: True. There won't be one next year because of the Olympics, but the problem for the league is it's a "signature" event that is important for schmoozing sponsors and glad-handing folks. Hard to dispose of it completely, even if it becomes more pointless than it already is. The only thing we know for sure (or pretty sure, at least) is we'll be ringing in 2010 in some other city. If it's half as good as the Wrigley effort, it'll be a titanic success. Until next time.
LeBrun: Adieu et Bonne Annee, mon ami (goodbye and Happy Near Year, my friend). Don't get lost getting back to that hockey hotbed of Atlanta.
Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com.
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