DETROIT – The NHL isn’t satisfied with the return of the Winter Classic – not even a rescheduled match-up between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings, expected to draw a record crowd of more than 110,000 to Michigan Stadium on New Year’s Day.
The League wants more. It thinks the fans want more. And so it could hold multiple outdoor games in the United States as soon as next season, raising revenues and the sport’s profile in more markets.
“It’s not necessarily a new conversation,” NHL chief operating officer John Collins said after a Winter Classic news conference at Joe Louis Arena. “We’ve been looking at this and talking about it for a while. But I think now we’re looking at it real hard.”
The Fourth Period reported the NHL is close to a deal for a game featuring the Los Angeles Kings at Dodger Stadium. Player agent Allan Walsh tweeted the deal was done and the game likely would take place on Hockey Day in America.
The Fourth Period also reported the NHL has been discussing a deal for a game featuring the New York Rangers and would prefer it to be played at Yankee Stadium. Writer Dave Pagnotta hinted at a Hockey Day in America doubleheader.
Collins and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman declined to give details. Collins said league officials were discussing ideas with the Board of Governors, individual teams and the NHL Players’ Association.
Asked specifically about the report of a game Dodger Stadium, Collins said: “It’s accurate from the standpoint of, we’re always looking at stuff. We have another finance committee meeting this week. So we’re laying out a lot of plans.”
The NHL has staged multiple outdoor games only once before, when it held the Heritage Classic in Calgary and the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh in 2011. It has never staged multiple outdoor games in the United States before. There is an obvious concern, but the NHL sees enormous potential.
“There are people who say you’ll dilute what is a good, special thing,” Collins said. “No one would be more concerned about not screwing up a good thing than we would be.”
The Winter Classic has been wildly successful – from attention to attendance to merchandising. Collins said the Winter Classic – one regular-season game – generates 40-60 percent of the merchandising revenue that a market like Boston or Chicago generates when it wins a Stanley Cup.
Teams that have not been involved in the Winter Classic want to be involved in one. Teams that have already been involved in the Winter Classic want to be involved in another one and don’t want to wait years for another turn.
“We’re aware of the tremendous interest, and obviously you can’t ignore the interest,” Bettman said. “We’ve been thinking about it.”
One game is not enough to meet the demand, especially when it’s a nationally televised game that requires certain match-ups. So the League wants to keep the Winter Classic as its centerpiece showcase – 1 p.m., New Year’s Day, NBC. The Winter Classic would continue to be its own brand, as would the Heritage Classic as the Canadian game. Additional games would stand on their own. Even if they don’t have the same appeal nationally, they would have a local impact.
“The local aspect is something that we’ve been spending a lot of time talking to clubs about,” Collins said. “We’ve always said, ‘How do we get to more markets and share this experience?’ We know that there are a lot of markets where the concept of an outdoor regular-season game would be magical and really fantastic, but they may not be markets that would really carry the weight of a nationally televised Jan. 1 game, so they may not get there. And then we look at the markets that we’ve been in. … Clearly there’s a demand and an opportunity.”
Said Bettman: “Putting aside its national impact, when you see what it does locally, it’s incredible. It’s no secret that lots of cities and lots of teams have said, ‘We really want one of these.’ ”
The NHL has learned lessons from staging previous outdoor games that could help bring outdoor hockey to new places – like, say, Dodger Stadium. The Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins played in a light rain at night in 2011. It was 71 degrees by the dasher boards in Philadelphia in 2012. The NHL used an insulated blanket on the ice, and the ice was fine when the sun went down.
Collins said first, the league wants to make the conditions as safe as possible, and second, it wants to “push the extremes in terms of the temperature and how we would handle certain things.” L.A., anyone?
Along with more international events – including a World Cup – more outdoor games are a “natural next step,” Collins said. The NHL and the NHLPA have emerged from the lockout with a 10-year labor agreement. The league has a long-term deal with NBC and needs a new TV deal in Canada after next season.
“We’ve had really significant growth over the last six, seven years, and so how do we now keep it growing at least at that level, if not even accelerated?” Collins said. “I think it’s all within the context of, ‘How do we make the game bigger? How do we drive more revenue? How do we see our world for the next five, 10 years?’ ”
The world looks nice outdoors.