PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - With another successful Winter Classic in the books the National Hockey League (NHL) woke up on Tuesday and did what it has each of the last five years, pat itself on the back and think about what to do as an encore for the outdoor game.
Previous Winter Classics have featured hockey’s biggest names and rivalries at iconic outdoor venues like Chicago’s Wrigley Field and Boston’s Fenway Park, home to Major League Baseball’s (MLB) Cubs and Red Sox, respectively.
What began as a one-off tribute to hockey’s outdoor roots with the first Winter Classic in Buffalo in 2008 has become the NHL’s most important regular season fixture.
Four of the five most-watched NHL regular-season games in the United States since 1975 have been Winter Classics, the concept scooping up more sport marketing and business awards than Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky in his prime.
Keeping the Classic fresh and relevant in an increasingly competitive and crowded marketplace has seen the NHL attempt to strike a balance between risking overexposure and leaving fans wanting more.
As 50,000 chilled but smiling fans exited Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park on Monday after the New York Rangers 3-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was singing the praises of yet another Winter Classic.
Once coy about whether there would even be a regular outdoor game, Bettman is now simply evasive about the location or number that will be played next year.
”Under the circumstances, we are tightly controlling the number of outdoor games we have,“ Bettman told reporters. ”There has been considerable debate, both outside my office and within the league and from the clubs.
”There are a number of clubs who say, ‘I want this, and even if I’ve hosted it, I don’t want to wait 10 years to get it back.
So let’s do more and more and more.’
“Other people say this has become a special event, because it’s special, it’s unique and that’s something that, over time, we’ll probably continue to wrestle with.”
The NHL will not reveal the venue or teams for next year’s Classic for several months but there are no shortage of suitors ready to make a pitch.
The league would love to have the event in New York, ideally at Yankee Stadium, but will have to wait as the venue is booked to host a U.S. college bowl game for the next few years.
There are other possibilities in and around the Big Apple with the home field of MLB’s New York Mets, Rutgers University, West Point and even Central Park being floated.
The Washington Capitals have their hand up while some feel a need to move the game out of the Eastern United States, where it has been staged every year.
Denver has been mentioned as possible site while Minnesota, which many consider the cradle of American hockey, would provide the type of wintry images and nostalgia the league seeks.
But every indication is that the Classic, which has also been held in Pittsburgh, will remain in the East for 2013 with the Detroit Red Wings landing the event.
Michigan Stadium, which set an attendance record for a hockey game with a college matchup in 2010, would provide the “wow” factor the NHL loves.
The idea of 110,000 fans packed into the Big House for an NHL game is a marketing dream but the event could also be played in downtown Detroit at Comerica Park, home of MLB’s Detroit Tigers, which is also owned by Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch.
”My guess is it will be played in a place we have not been before. So, therefore, in the U.S., you’ve eliminated five locations,“ said Bettman. ”You can play with the other 25, play with geography and understand that temperature is a factor.
”So, regarding getting out of the East and predicting next year’s site, The answer is you can eliminate some of the warmer climates.
“We are not probably going to go back to where we have been. That’s all you get from me today.”
Editing by Frank Pingue