NHL looks for balance with outdoor games

The Bruins hosted the Flyers at Fenway Park for the 2010 Winter Classic. Jerry Lai/US Presswire

Almost as interesting as the NHL's annual forays out of doors is the debate over where those events will be held.

With the NHL scaling back its outdoor events this year -- holding two games after last season's six -- it’s expected the number will jump to four next season.

Sources have told ESPN.com that the NHL wants to schedule two Stadium Series games and another installment of the Canadian-based Heritage Classic in Minnesota, Colorado and Winnipeg -- all of which have yet to host an outdoor NHL game. That would be balanced with a return to Boston for the 2016 Winter Classic, as negotiations are ongoing to make this the first repeat city.

Nothing is set in stone as far as location for the outdoor games, but it’s believed the NHL would like to make an announcement in February after the All-Star Game in Columbus so teams can build in marketing plans for next season.

This four-game slate of outdoor games is right in the wheelhouse for the NHL's plans. This group of events makes a lot of money for the league and the teams involved, and creates a unique buzz in most markets. But it also requires a significant investment of manpower and planning.

Last year, the league went over the top with six games since it was the first full season after the labor stoppage that cost fans almost half of the 2012-13 season.

Taken independently, all of the games were justifiable.

There were two games in the New York City area that coincided with Super Bowl week and included all three New York-area teams.

There was the boffo Winter Classic at the Big House in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Jan. 1 that capped off a great few days of celebration of the game at Comerica Park in downtown Detroit.

The NHL went west to Dodger Stadium for a picture-perfect night of hockey under the stars between the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks complete with Vin Scully, the USC marching band, Wayne Gretzky and Kiss.

There was a post-Olympics game at frigid Soldier Field between the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins.

And likely the hardest sell of them all, a sort-of-outdoor game at domed B.C. Place in Vancouver between the Vancouver Canucks and Ottawa Senators.

Even though each event could be justified as being special in each of the markets, there was great debate over whether six was excessive and whether the NHL was simply trying for a massive cash grab to offset some of the lost revenues and negative press incurred during the lockout.

This year there are only two outdoor games: a long-promised Winter Classic at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. (although without some of the additional events that have made previous events so popular like an alumni game); and a return to California on Feb. 21 when the San Jose Sharks will host the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings at Levi’s Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers.

Next year, the NHL is looking to strike a balance between having enough outdoor events to keep teams happy -- as commissioner Gary Bettman is fond of saying: Everyone wants to host an outdoor game -- while not allowing one of the league’s most important marketing strategies to eat itself into nothing.

Certainly going to Minnesota and Denver is a no-brainer.

The Wild have seen their profile rise in recent years with the addition of Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, and they do, after all, play in the State of Hockey.

If forced to guess, I’d suggest the Wild will try to secure a date at TCF Bank Stadium, where the University of Minnesota football team plays, but Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins, is also an option.

The Avs, although suffering through a difficult season, are in the midst of a significant renaissance as a franchise with defending coach of the year Patrick Roy behind the bench and being the surprise winners of the Central Division last season. Denver provides a number of options, including Coors Field, where the Colorado Rockies play, and Sports Authority Field at Mile High, where the Denver Broncos play.

Winnipeg is almost certainly headed for Canad Inns Stadium, where the CFL's Blue Bombers play their home games.

Which brings us back to Boston and what would be the first two-time host of the Winter Classic, although not the first two-time host of an outdoor game. Chicago has hosted both a Winter Classic (2009 at Wrigley Field) and a Stadium Series game (2014 at Soldier Field).

The Bruins were the hosts of the 2010 Winter Classic against Philadelphia and, while Fenway Park remains a truly iconic location, it's hard to imagine the NHL won’t want to till new ground.

Part of the league’s plans from the outset was to return periodically to strong NHL cities for this event, which remains the marquee game on the NHL’s regular season calendar.

The New England Patriots play in Foxborough, Massachusetts, and the NHL last used an NFL stadium for the Winter Classic in 2011 when the Pittsburgh Steelers made Heinz Field available thanks in large part to an agreeable ownership and a favorable schedule that saw the Steelers play at home on a Thursday and then go on the road the following week, allowing the NHL time to transform the field.

Could the same thing happen next Jan. 1?


The Patriots are believed to be enthusiastic about working with the NHL and the Bruins. Plus there is also the option to make use of Fenway Park, as the Boston Red Sox have periodically since 2010 hosted their own outdoor hockey/skating events at the venerable ballpark. A situation similar to last year where events were split between downtown Detroit and Ann Arbor is easy to imagine in Boston.

Finally, if we had to lobby for an opponent, we’d go for the Montreal Canadiens. As witnessed a year ago in Michigan where the Red Wings hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs, having some Canadian content in the Winter Classic isn’t necessarily a bad thing.