2011 Winter Classic: Why Pittsburgh and Washington So Soon?

Winter Classic Press Conference (THW/Mike Colligan)

PITTSBURGH – In the first three installments of the Winter Classic, the venue was as much a part of the spectacle as the teams facing off on the field. After holding the event at storied places like Ralph Wilson Stadium, Wrigley Field, and Fenway Park, commissioner Gary Bettman says the 2011 host Heinz Field will no doubt be the “baby of the group.”

For most fans, it’s no secret that the NHL pushes their poster-children Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin into the spotlight quite a bit – some might argue too much. The rivalry has been growing intensely over the past few seasons as Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Semin, Crosby, and Ovechkin have traded countless verbal slashes in the media and real ones on the ice. Bettman and other NHL officials knew that when the time was right, a Pittsburgh-Washington Winter Classic could be played in Alaska and it would still be an enormous success.

But Pittsburgh also played in the inaugural Winter Classic against the Buffalo Sabres just a few years ago. With Crosby, Malkin, Ovechkin, and Nicklas Backstrom signed long-term, why would the league rush into including the Penguins again and playing their trump card so soon?

Adrian Dater at the Denver Post wrote an interesting, albeit cynical, piece on how another lockout may be looming for the NHL in 2012-13.  In it he explains why the NHL needs to cash in on their TV ratings momentum sooner rather than later:

No ratings means no TV money, and no TV money is a big reason why the last lockout happened and could happen again.

The last three years, the league has “lucked” out, with two straight Detroit-Pittsburgh and one Philly-Chicago Finals matchups. Pittsburgh may not be a huge market, but Sidney Crosby is the biggest household name in the game still, and Philly-Chicago was perfect — two big-market teams with great fans, players and atmospheres. But if this year’s Final is between, say, Columbus and Atlanta? It’ll be right back to those 0.9 types of national ratings.

The current TV deal with NBC expires following this season and Bettman has reportedly promised NHL owners big money on their next broadcast deal.  Under the agreement in place, the league simply shares advertising revenues with NBC in addition to the small sum VERSUS pays as the NHL’s cable network.

Gary Bettman (THW/Mike Colligan)

As Dater also points out, NBC and VERSUS may be under the same roof in the near future and the combined Comcast entity could be looking to challenge ESPN’s sports supremacy.

The NHL’s dream matchup between USA and Canada in February’s Olympic Gold Medal game was a springboard for a league looking to regain national exposure.    The Chicago-Philadelphia Stanley Cup matchup was a can’t-fail pairing that produced record TV ratings and a 44% increase in viewership over the heavily watched Pittsburgh-Detroit rematch in 08-09. But a dud matchup in the Winter Classic or this season’s Stanley Cup Finals would potentially cost the league everything it’s gained as leverage in recent seasons.

The time had come for Bettman to push his chips into the pot and reap the full potential of his New Years Day jewel.

Among the more interesting parts of today’s press conference was a player-challenge that saw Sidney Crosby and others attempting to shoot pucks through the uprights from over 70 yards away.  As we mentioned in our Winter Classic preview months ago, winds at the South end featured in the video could present a unique twist at this year’s Classic.

Pittsburgh’s 30-year-old Mayor Luke Ravenstahl is no stranger to the challenges the wind can present in a football stadium. While pursuing an undergraduate degree at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, PA, Ravenstahl handled the field goal kicking duties for the school’s Division III football team:

It definitely will be unique; just like Ralph Wilson Stadium, Wrigley Field, and Fenway Park all had unique features.  One of the features that kickers have had to adjust to is the wind and the open end here at Heinz Field.  How that will affect hockey remains to be seen, but with the wind coming off the rivers, it will be a chilly day no doubt.

Ravenstahl went on to say that hosting the Winter Classic represents not only the success of the team, but also the revival of the city of Pittsburgh itself in recent years:

There’s no doubt we wouldn’t be hosting this event if it wasn’t for the success of the Penguins and the fact that we were able to keep them here.  But just as importantly, Pittsburgh is on the move as well.  Our city is continually recognized as one of the finest cities in America that’s making some great strides forward.  I think it’s really a combination of great hockey, a great sports town, as well as a great place to have an event like this.

Since coming over in the Marian Hossa trade two years ago, Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis has settled into the community well and also understands what an event like this will mean to the city:

Pittsburgh’s going to show everyone how sports-crazy they really are.  They all know about football, but I don’t think the world knows about how big the fans are into hockey – that’s going to be great to see.   I wasn’t around for the first one played in Buffalo, but I watched it and saw Sid score the big goal with snow coming down and [the Winter Classic] can really create some special moments.

While many of the Penguins have experienced braving the cold and elements at the first Winter Classic, the experience will be a new one for the Washington Capitals.  David Steckel had to think back to his youth hockey days when asked if he had ever experienced something like this outdoor game before:

Personally, I played in an outdoor rink my first three years of hockey, but obviously they have a lot of guys who played in the first [Winter Classic].  I’m sure that first practice for us we’ll try to get adapted and it’ll be just kind of like going back to old-time hockey.  There’s plenty of months still to talk about everything and obviously when we start the season everyone will be a little distracted a little, but it’s still right around the corner and they say take everything in.

  • http://thehockeywriters.com Rick Gethin


    The outdoor game between Montreal and Edmonton was referenced as the “Heritage Classic” in 2003 (also known as ” a November to remember”), not the “Winter Classic”. So yes, Pittsburgh vs Buffalo was indeed the first “Winter Classic”.

    The 2011 Heritage Classic will be held in Calgary on February 20, 2011. The game will pit Calgary vs Montreal.

    -Assoc. Ed.

  • http://jasfaulkner.blogspot.com Jas Faulkner

    The annoucement was disappointing to say the least. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Ovechkin in all of his bratty, dotty, insanely talented glory, but he is standing on the shoulders of giants. The Winter Classic should be about revisiting Hockey’s roots. Maybe its a generational thing, but I don’t want the NHL to lose sight of where the game came from or the people who made it what it is.

    Bring on the classic rivalries. Give me goosebumps when I see the giants of my childhood on the ice again. The new teams, new faces and new dramas have all season to play out. The Winter Classic is for looking back fondly on what made us love the game in the first place.

  • diggerjohn111

    Pittsburgh vs. Buffalo was not the “First Winter Classic”, Montreal vs. Edmonton was, but people south of the border forget that Edmonton even exists. Bettman has to go! Canada deserves her game back!

    • http://www.faceoffhockeyshow.com JonnyP

      Actually … not true. The Montreal vs. Edmonton game was called the “Heritage Classic” and has nothing to do with the “Winter Classic” we currently see.