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The Great Outdoors

Is the NHL headed to a stadium near you?

Wednesday night’s matchup between the Rangers and Islanders at Yankee Stadium was the league’s third outdoor game in five days and fourth in January. And there’s still more to come, with games scheduled for this March in Chicago and Vancouver.

After that, we’ll go back to an all-indoor schedule … at least for a few months. The league hasn’t announced its plans for next year’s games, besides the Winter Classic, which the Capitals will host.1 We don’t know how many outdoor games there will be next season and beyond, though recent reports have said there will be four and we’ve been assured the number will “definitely” be fewer than this year’s six.

By the end of the 2013-14 schedule, 11 teams will have hosted regular-season outdoor games, with the Blackhawks and Rangers each hosting twice.2 The odds are good that more of the league’s top markets will get to double up before long, and that’s fine — outdoor games are big business, and it would be a costly mistake to try to spread them around the whole league equally in the name of fairness.

That said, there are plenty of markets that could make great hosts and haven’t had a chance yet. So here’s a look at a dozen possibilities that could be in line to get their opportunity soon, plus my odds for first-time hosts getting a game in the next three years.

♦♦♦

Minnesota Wild

It’s arguably the best hockey market in the country, the team is decent, and there are multiple strong venues from which to choose. How has the NHL not done a game here already? Are we sure the NHL hasn’t done a game here already?

[Double-checks list.]

I’ll be damned. Well, we need to fix that, and quickly.

Or maybe not so quickly, since Minnesota would be such a great choice, you could make a case for holding off one more year and giving it the 2016 Winter Classic. But if the league decides to go with a Stadium Series game instead, that works, too. Target Field or TCF Bank Stadium would both be excellent venues.

A bigger question might be whom the Wild would play. Chicago is the natural choice, but that’s true for most matchups and at some point, there’s a risk of inducing Blackhawks fatigue. Detroit could work. Or maybe the league goes with Dallas, in a battle that would pit Minnesota’s NHL present against its past.

In any case, if the Wild don’t get either the 2016 Classic or a Stadium Series game next year, something is wrong.

The Odds: 1-to-5
Not quite a sure thing, but close.

Colorado Avalanche

This is another one that would seem to fall into the “not if, but when” category. Colorado is a solid market where the hockey footprint extends beyond the NHL, with the college game and youth level both thriving. And Denver itself would provide the sort of stunning visuals the league seems to love so much for these games.

There’s even a perfect opponent: the Detroit Red Wings. A Detroit-Colorado pairing would quite possibly be the most anticipated, intense, and downright nasty outdoor matchup in league history. And I’m just talking about the alumni game.

The bigger question is where you put it. There are several options, including Mile High and Coors Field, as well as multiple college football stadiums nearby. None are perfect, but few venues are, and Denver just has too much going for it to be denied for long.

Oh, and now one of the NHL’s top sponsors is asking for a Colorado game. Yeah, this is going to happen, and probably sooner than later.

The Odds: off the board
At this point, I’m calling it a 100 percent lock.

Toronto Maple Leafs

At first glance, it seems odd the league hasn’t done an outdoor game in Toronto yet. After all, this is the NHL’s biggest market in terms of generating revenue, and the Maple Leafs consistently dominate Canadian television ratings.3 And with nearly a century of history to draw on, there’d be no shortage of the sort of nostalgia the league loves to dump all over these games.

It’s a no-brainer. So what’s the holdup?

Well, there is one tiny detail that would have to be worked out: a decent venue. Toronto doesn’t have one. The city’s biggest stadium is the former SkyDome (now known as the Rogers Centre), a concrete eyesore that would be all wrong for this sort of event. Then there’s BMO Field, which — at a capacity of just over 20,000 — is too small. Right now, those are the only two options.

So, what can they do? The same thing Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment does every time it has a problem: throw giant fistfuls of money at it. MLSE is reportedly set to spend millions to expand BMO Field with both permanent and temporary seating, getting it into the 40,000-seat range. That’s not huge, but it would be comparable to the smaller sites of previous games like Fenway Park and Wrigley Field.

If the plan comes together, Toronto would be ready to host a game in 2017. That also happens to be the team’s 100th anniversary season, and MLSE has made it known that it intends to go all out to mark the occasion. In other words, you can probably go ahead and pencil in the 2017 Winter Classic for Toronto right now.

The Odds: 1-to-2
Unless the BMO Field plan falls through, which it could, they should be a lock for 2017.

Montreal Canadiens

While the Canadiens have played in each of two previous Heritage Classics, they’ve never hosted an outdoor game. That makes them the only Canadian market other than Toronto to be left out.4 And as with Toronto, their exclusion all comes down to the lack of a venue.

Montreal is home to the largest sports stadium in Canada. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s Olympic Stadium, which is a dump. It’s not even an outdoor stadium anymore, though that’s probably just a temporary issue, since there’s a 90 percent chance some part of the roof would fall off during the game.

So if not the Big O, then where? There really aren’t any other especially enticing options. Molson Stadium could be available, but it seats only about 25,000, which is barely more than the Bell Centre holds.

Unless they could talk the NHL into using a temporary facility, Montreal seems to be out of luck. Instead, look for the league to continue its established trend of using the Habs as a guaranteed draw against other teams, especially in Canada.

The Odds: 12-1
It’s all about the venue; the second they find one that works, they’ll get a game.

San Jose Sharks

Thanks to Saturday’s well-received Ducks-Kings matchup, we now know that outdoor hockey can work in California. So it seems only fair that the state’s third team get in on the action with a game in San Jose.

Well, probably not the city of San Jose, specifically. But there are several venues in the Bay Area that are close enough, including AT&T Park (home of the Giants) or the new Levi’s Stadium (soon to be home of the 49ers).

The Sharks are one of the league’s better teams, with a strong and growing fan base. Pair them with one of their in-state rivals and you’ve got yourself a solid matchup. The league may want to wait a few years to avoid overdoing the California-game novelty, but the Sharks should get their chance eventually.

The Odds: even
I’m betting the L.A. game was just too much of a success for the NHL not to return to California within a few years.

Dallas Stars

There have long been rumors that the league would like to hold a game in Dallas, with Stars broadcaster Daryl Reaugh all but guaranteeing the area would get an outdoor game within a few years.

The venue, it goes without saying, would be AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. After all, if you want your outdoor game to be a spectacle, it’s hard to think of a better choice than Jerry Jones’s billion-dollar monstrosity, which has already hosted a Super Bowl and an NBA All-Star Game. The retractable roof would serve as a safety net in case of rain, and it’s bigger than almost any other venue the league could be eying.

In fact, it may be too big. At a capacity of more than 80,000, would you feel confident the NHL could sell out the building? It’s one thing to fill the Big House when you can draw fans from a pair of established markets like Detroit and Toronto, but Arlington, Texas, might be another matter. We haven’t seen many empty seats at outdoor games yet, but without a traditional rival to pair the Stars with, a Dallas game could put that streak at risk.

Then again, this could be an opportunity to further grow the game in Texas. And hey, if California can work, then any southern market can, right?

The Odds: 3-to-1
Imagine Gary Bettman negotiating a deal with Jerry Jones. I bet that would be a fun meeting.

Tampa Bay Lightning or Florida Panthers

Hm. OK, maybe not any southern market …

Florida has actually come up as a potential outdoor game location from time to time, though those mentions have often come with a punch line. Could it ever happen? Probably. Will it ever happen? Uh … about that.

As much as the league might love to pair up its two Florida teams in a rivalry-boosting outdoor matchup, it’s hard to imagine it becoming a reality anytime soon. Oh, the league could probably make it work logistically, since its ice-making technology hasn’t failed it yet.5 And the usual cheap shots about fan bases aside, you could probably find enough Lightning fans and Canadian snowbirds to fill a smaller venue.

But the bigger problem would be the Panthers: They’re just not that good, and haven’t been for a long time. That could be an issue for a showcase game. True, the Leafs hadn’t made the playoffs in eight years when they were announced as a Winter Classic team. But when it comes to marketing impact, it’s fair to say nobody is confusing the Florida Panthers with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Let’s file this one under “someday, just not now.”

The Odds: 25-to-1
Just can’t see it happening anytime soon.

Phoenix Coyotes

You might be tempted to lump Phoenix in with the Florida teams as deep long shots, but there’s at least a little bit of smoke here. According to reports, the Coyotes have already been vocal about making their case to the league. And there’s a suitable venue right next door, in University of Phoenix Stadium. The retractable-roof stadium has already hosted a Super Bowl and a WrestleMania, so a hockey game shouldn’t be all that challenging.

Would this be one of the league’s best options? Probably not. Does the league have a track record of making wise choices when it comes to the Phoenix Coyotes? No comment.

The Odds: 10-to-1
They’re a sneaky dark horse. If the league wants to do the next southern game outside California and decides Dallas wouldn’t work, Phoenix has a shot.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Columbus has three things going for it: a great venue, the 102,000-seat Ohio Stadium; cold weather; and a perfect opponent in the Detroit Red Wings. But it’s that pesky “Blue Jackets” part of the equation that could be the issue.

Like the Panthers, the Blue Jackets haven’t been good for years.6 Unlike the Panthers, there’s at least some hope for the short term. Columbus has suffered through a mostly disappointing season, but has been hot lately, and there’s reason to expect the Blue Jackets should at least be solid playoff contenders in the years to come.

Could you find enough Blue Jackets fans to fill the Horseshoe? Probably not, but you wouldn’t have to. Red Wings fans saw their outdoor game get overrun by visiting Leafs fans, and this would be their chance to do the same to another team.

One thing worth noting: The Blue Jackets are already scheduled to host the 2015 All-Star Game. For a medium-size market, the league may feel like that’s enough showcase events for now.

The Odds: 5-to-1
They’ll get one eventually, but might have to wait until the team improves.

St. Louis Blues

Now that their 1967 expansion cousins in Los Angeles have made their open-air debut, St. Louis is the oldest NHL market to have never participated in an outdoor game. Chances are that won’t be the case for much longer.

Busch Stadium would seem like a natural choice as a venue, and the 46,000 capacity shouldn’t be too daunting (even for a team that hasn’t been drawing great crowds lately). This would be yet another team that would probably want to face Chicago, so Minnesota’s opponent could tell us a lot about how close St. Louis’s turn is.

The Odds: 3-to-2
They’re right on the bubble, and it could depend on how many games the NHL ends up scheduling.

A Non-NHL Market

Hey, there’s no rule that says an NHL outdoor game has to take place in an existing NHL market. If at least part of the idea is to grow the sport and attract some attention for the league, it could make sense to occasionally get creative.

One proposal that seems to come up often is a Pittsburgh-Philadelphia game at Penn State’s Beaver Stadium, which is roughly halfway between the two cities. Lambeau Field or Notre Dame Stadium would also be fantastic spectacles, though coming up with a fitting matchup that wasn’t Detroit-Chicago would be a challenge.

The league could also look to build some goodwill in a possible future market, such as Seattle, Kansas City, or even, god help us, Las Vegas.

The Odds: 2-to-1
That Penguins-Flyers game at Penn State makes too much sense not to happen, right?

Europe

Far-fetched? Probably, but it could make sense. There would be no shortage of excellent venues, and the league has lots of European stars it could market. The NHL has already played regular-season games overseas, has talked about a “European business plan,” and is even rumored to be eyeing Europe as a possible expansion target.

So why not have a game featuring, say, Jaromir Jagr, Patrik Elias, and the New Jersey Devils in the Czech Republic? The only downside is that you’d have to do it before Jagr and Elias retire. So, you’re probably limited to another five or six years, max.

The Odds: 30-to-1
It makes sense to do it someday. I don’t think that day is soon.

Filed Under: NHL, Winter Classic, Stadium Series, Hockey, sean mcindoe

mcindoe-columnist-profile

Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at his blog, Down Goes Brown. His first book, The Best of Down Goes Brown, was released last September.

Archive @ DownGoesBrown

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