Thursday, December 29, 2011

Should-Be Winter Classic Sites

Due to New Year's Day being a Sunday, and having the NFL regular-season finales (except for Monday Night Football), the NHL will have its annual Winter Classic on January 2 this year. It will be the New York Rangers against the Philadelphia Flyers, at Citizens Bank Park, home field of the Philadelphia Phillies.

As a fan of the New Jersey Devils (who beat the Buffalo Sabres last night), used to the off-color shout, "Rangers suck! Flyers swallow!", who do I root for in this one?

The Flyers. Never root for the Rangers. Never, never, NEV-ER.

Unless they're playing the Dallas Cowboys. Or the Boston Red Sox.


The seeds of the Winter Classic were sown all the way back in the early days of the game. In fact, that's how hockey started: Boys on a frozen pond in Canada. It wasn't until 1875 in Montreal that an indoor ice rink hosted a hockey game. It simply wasn't technologically possible before that.

Hockey was first played in the Olympics in 1920 in Antwerp, Belgium, indoors. When the Winter Olympics were first played in 1924 in Chamonix, France, the hockey was played outdoors. This continued with the World Championships, sponsored by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF).

This topped out in 1957, at the Lenin Stadium (now the Luzhniki Stadium) in Moscow, where 55,000 saw the host Soviet Union play Sweden to a 4-4 draw in the final game, giving the hosts enough points to win the title. The crowd was, at least officially (Translation: As far as anyone knew for sure), the largest ever to see a hockey game, in any country, at any level, up to that point.

The 1st NHL team to play an outdoor game was the Detroit Red Wings. On February 2, 1954, in a season that would see them begin back-to-back Stanley Cup-winning seasons, they played an exhibition against the inmates of Marquette Branch Prison, on the prison grounds on Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

This would be the only outdoor NHL game until 1991, when the Rangers and the Los Angeles Kings played a preseason exhibition in the parking lot of Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. Then in 2001, the modern trend began. Michigan State University hosted their arch-rivals, the University of Michigan, in front of 74,554 fans, a new world record, at their football stadium, Spartan Stadium (a.k.a. Macklin Field). They called it the Cold War, and the two collegiate hockey powers played to a 3-3 tie.

The NHL got into the act in 2003, and this time it was in the regular season. The Edmonton Oilers hosted a doubleheader with the Montreal Canadiens: First, an alumni game between the 1980s Oilers (5 Cups in 7 years) such as Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier (who was still active at that point but got permission from the Rangers) against the 1970s Canadiens (4 straight Cups and 6 in 9 years) such as Guy Lafleur and Larry Robinson.

It was known as the Heritage Classic, trying to tie in with the idea of youth hockey on frozen lakes and ponds, and it was -2° Fahrenheit at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium. Still, 57,167 fans, far and away an NHL record (breaking the record of 27,277 for a 1993 Tampa Bay Lightning game at what's now called Tropicana Field), saw the ex-Oilers beat the ex-Habs 2-1, and then the current Habs beat the current Oilers 4-3. Canadiens goalie Jose Theodore started a fad by wearing a special snow hat called a "toque" over his mask.

On April 2, 2005, during the NHL lockout, a charity game called "Our Game to Give" was held at Ivor Wynne Stadium, home of the Canadian Football League's Hamilton Tiger-Cats. A team led by Doug Gilmour beat one led by Steve Staios 9-8, although only 10,300 attended.

The restored NHL decided it was worth trying again. It set up an annual contest for New Year's Day, calling it the Winter Classic. On January 1, 2008, at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, New York, home of the NFL's Buffalo Bills, a new league record of 71,217 fans saw the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Buffalo Sabres 2-1 in a shootout, after the game was played in a steady snowfall. Both teams wore throwback jerseys from the 1970-71 season, the Sabres' 1st.

In 2009, for the 1st time since the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium closed in 1997, the NHL played a game at a building that opened prior to 1961. Also, for the 1st time ever, it was in a stadium built for baseball. Wrigley Field in Chicago, built in 1914 and home of baseball's Chicago Cubs, hosted the arch-rival Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings. The Wings won, 6-4, in front of 40,818. The Wings wore copies of their original 1926 uniforms, while the Hawks wore a uniform that was a combination of their 1936 and 1949 uniforms.

In 2010, the Boston Bruins beat the Flyers 2-1, on an overtime goal by Marco Sturm, in front of 38,112 at Fenway Park in Boston. Built in 1912, this made Fenway the earliest-constructed building to host an NHL game since 1929, when the Blackhawks moved from the 1899-built Chicago Coliseum (demolished in 1982) to the new Chicago Stadium (demolished in 1995). The Flyers wore uniforms resembling those of their 1974 Stanley Cup team, the Bruins from 1958. Bobby Orr and Bobby Clarke were honorary captains.

Fenway kept the rink for a week and played another 2 games on January 8: A women's collegiate game in which the University of New Hampshire beat Northeastern University (of Boston) 5-3, and a men's game in which Boston University beat Boston College 3-2.

The winter of 2010 saw two other sets of outdoor games: Camp Randall Stadium at the University of Wisconsin, a longtime hockey power, hosted a doubleheader. Their women beat Bemidji State of Minnesota, 6-1. Their men beat Michigan, 3-2. And a minor-league game was held at the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse. In what's believed to be a North American minor league record, 21,508 fans saw the Syracuse Crunch beat the Binghamton Senators, 2-1.

On December 11, 2010, a new record was set when 113,411 saw "The Big Chill at the Big House," Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. Again, it was Michigan vs. Michigan State. This time, Michigan won, 5-0.

The 2011 NHL Winter Classic almost broke the '08 Sabres' record: A crowd of 68,111 saw the Washington Capitals beat the Penguins 3-1 at Heinz Field, home of the NHL's Pittsburgh Steelers. Each team wore uniforms from their 1st season: The Pens from 1967-68, the Caps from 1974-75.

Later in the season, on February 20, the "2011 Heritage Classic" was held at McMahon Stadium in Calgary, where 41,022 saw the host Flames beat the Canadiens, 4-0.

For this coming Monday's game, the Flyers will again wear 1974 uniforms, while the Rangers, whose uniform design has not changed much (except in font) from their 1926 debut, will wear a classic-ified version of their familiar design.

Later in the month, Citizens Bank Park will host a minor-league game between the Hershey Bears and the Adirondack Phantoms; Fenway will host a series of college and high school games; and Progressive (Jacobs) Field in Cleveland, home of baseball's Indians, will host a revival of one of the great football rivalries in a hockey game, Ohio State vs. Michigan.


So where should future Winter Classics be held? They're already talking about one in California, in front of nearly 100,000 at the Los Angeles Coliseum. But just because something could be done doesn't mean it should be done. The whole point is that it's a Winter Classic. You know the old saying, "It never rains in Southern California"? Well, it does. But it doesn't snow. In northernmost California, or along its eastern border in the Sierra Nevada mountains, such as Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the Continental United States (a.k.a. the Lower 48), yes; in the San Francisco Bay Area, occasionally; in Southern California, no.

So, in my opinion, the following teams should be out as potential hosts: The Anaheim Ducks, Carolina Hurricanes, Dallas Stars, Florida Panthers, Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix Coyotes, St. Louis Blues, San Jose Sharks and Tampa Bay Lightning.

Likewise, the following teams have already hosted, and should be dropped from consideration until other potential sites have hosted: The Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Calgary Flames, Chicago Blackhawks, Edmonton Oilers, Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins.

Ironically, the 2 oldest and (at least in terms of most Stanley Cups won, if neither all that recently) most successful NHL franchises aren't exactly good choices. Where could the Montreal Canadiens play an outdoor game? McGill University's Molson Stadium seats only 25,000 people, not much more than the 21,273 they get indoors for every home game at the Bell Centre. And the Olympic Stadium, which seats 66,000 for football, has a permanent roof -- something it was supposed to have when it opened in 1976, but didn't get until 1987, and hasn't functioned well. Ironic: Now that there is a roof on the Big O, it works against a hope of the city.

While the Toronto Maple Leafs could play in front of 60,000 at the Rogers Centre (formerly the SkyDome), they'd have to open the retractable roof. Besides, now that the novelty of its roof has worn off, it's really not all that interesting a venue.

For similar reasons, the Vancouver Canucks would be a problematic host. The renovation of the Stadium at British Columbia Place gives it a retractable roof, making it possible, but it's hardly a stadium with a lot of character. (Then again, neither is the Bills' stadium.) And Frank Clair Stadium, home of the CFL's now-defunct Ottawa Rough Riders, seats just 26,000, making it not such a good site for the Ottawa Senators to host.

As far as Canada is concerned, that leaves the restored Winnipeg Jets. Canad Inns Stadium (formerly Winnipeg Stadium), is loaded with history as the home of the CFL's Winnipeg Blue Bombers, and while its official capacity is just 29,533, it can be expanded to a respectable 44,784 with temporary seating.

In the U.S., the most obvious site would be Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers, for the Red Wings to host. Also possible: Target Field in Minneapolis, the new home of the Minnesota Twins, or TCB Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, new home of the University of Minnesota football team, for the Wild; Sports Authority Field at Mile High (formerly Invesco Field at Mile High), the new home of the Denver Broncos, for the Colorado Avalanche; and one of the New York Tri-State Area stadiums. Less obvious is Ohio Stadium in Columbus: The Blue Jackets could play the Red Wings in a hockey version of "The Game," Ohio State vs.Michigan.

As for the New York Tri-State Area: Yankee Stadium isn't exactly suited, space-wise, for a hockey rink. But Citi Field, home of the Mets, would be ideal, especially if it's Rangers vs. Islanders. It wouldn't quite be the halfway mark between Madison Square Garden and the Nassau Coliseum -- that would roughly be Belson Stadium on the St. John's University campus, also in Queens -- but it would be close, and Islander fans could use another great Long Island institution. No, not Creedmoor. The Long Island Rail Road.

Could the Devils host? Sure, MetLife Stadium, the new home of the Giants and Jets, seats 82,500, which (depending on who else hosts the Winter Classic) could set a new NHL attendance record. But it couldn't be against the Rangers. I don't want their bastard fans outnumbering us 60,000 to 20,000 in what's supposed to be home game for us.

Yes, I know: Many of the Rangers' bastard fans are also my fellow Yankee Fans. What can I say, but "It's complicated."


Shawn in Montreal said...

Best article I've seen on this. Just one minor correction: Montreal's Olympic stadium was supposed to have a retractable roof, not a permanent one. It ended up being permanent due to it not working.

Cameron said...

You might want to do some more research on those Canadian stadiums. Frank Clair Stadium has had its south side stands demolished and is being refurbished for the 2014 CFL season. When it`s done, it will only seat about 24,000. Winnipeg is getting a new stadium for 2012 that seats 33,422 and can be expanded for 40,000+ fans. And I don`t know what you mean by BC Place lacking "character." I was there for the Grey Cup and it's spectacular. It's only a matter of time until the Canucks play a game there.

Unknown said...

Ann Arbor for Wings-Leafs. Would be PHENOMENAL!

snbandco said...

The AHL Hamilton Bulldogs will be playing the Toronto Marlies at Ivor Wynn Stadium in Hamilton on January 21with an alumni game between Montreal and Leaf players a day or two before that.