While everyone is talking Collective Bargaining Agreement, I thought it might be fun to go against the grain and talk about the next Winter Classic. We all know that this season’s Winter Classic is scheduled to take place in Detroit (well, Ann Arbor) on January 1, 2013, but that schedule is very much subject to change given the ongoing labor dispute.
Whenever the new CBA is agreed upon and the NHL returns, at some point they will have to put some thought into the next Winter Classic. Allow me to put an early bug in Gary Bettman’s ear: think about Nashville.
I know what you’re thinking. Outdoor hockey in Nashville? That will never happen and that’s not even possible, is it?
With advancements in modern technology, not only is it possible, but it won’t even be the most illogical place where the NHL has hosted an outdoor game before.
On September 27, 1991, the NHL played an outdoor game in a desert. The Los Angeles Kings took on the New York Rangers in a preseason game in the parking lot at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. The temperature at game time was 85 degrees Fahrenheit, but from all accounts the ice maintained its integrity and the game was well-received. Technically, it was the first official outdoor game in the NHL with the Kings beating the Rangers 5-2.
Man, watching that game really makes me yearn for those days when Gretzky owned the league. We were so spoiled by his skill and we didn’t even realize it at the time. But, that’s a story for another day. Was the game perfect? Of course not, between Biblical plague-worthy grasshoppers and bluelines falling apart, the game was more spectacle than anything else. But, it proved that outdoor hockey can be played in extreme conditions.
Twenty one years later, the fine residents of Pula, Croatia took the Roman outdoor hockey game to a whole new level when they hosted an outdoor game in a replica of the Roman Coliseum. Again, the conditions weren’t perfect, but with temperatures reaching into the mid 60s Fahrenheit, the game proved yet once more that hockey can be played in adverse conditions.
Nashville Winter Classic Logistics
Now that we’ve looked at the extreme conditions in which they have played outdoor hockey games, let’s get more specific with a potential Winter Classic game in Music City.
While it doesn’t snow regularly in Nashville during the Winter, the city does get a few snow squalls each year with negligible accumulation. So, while we can’t expect to have the perfect snow scenes from Buffalo’s Winter Classic game, we also don’t expect the ice to melt either. According to The Weather Channel, the average high temperature in Nashville in January is 47 degrees Fahrenheit, while the low is 28 degrees.
As for the location of the game, while I would love the logistical nightmare that would ensue if they decided to hold it in Greer Stadium, I think it’s safe to assume that they would prefer for the game to be at LP Field, the home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. The seating capacity of just under 70,000 is a good number and while it won’t come close to the crowd size at “The Big House,” it’s a pretty ambitious number for an outdoor game south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Naturally, the setup of the rink would necessitate the move of the Music City Bowl, but I’m sure that cross-town facility Dudley Field on Vanderbilt’s campus would be a suitable one year replacement venue for the college football bowl game.
Selling 70,000 tickets would be a stiff challenge to the Predators front office staff, but I think that scheduling an opponent with a fan base that travels well would help in that department. The Detroit Red Wings would be the logical choice given their fan base and nascent rivalry with Nashville, but I’m not sure the NHL would give Detroit its third Winter Classic. The Chicago Blackhawks could be an interesting choice given that their fans travel pretty well to Nashville. Regardless, the NHL Winter Classic is a destination event and I think many NHL fans would make the trip to Nashville for the game as the city itself is a draw, more so than the cities of other recent Winter Classics.
With the completion of the new Music City Center in early 2013 and Omni Hotel shortly thereafter, the city will be well-equipped to host a world class event and the Winter Classic is just such an event that the city can use to showcase their new facilities.
The real question should be, why not Nashville?
Earlier this year, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman indicated that with the new facilities, Nashville is “a natural city to host the All-Star Game.” Hosting an All-Star game is all well and good, but they are doled out many years in advance and seem to be more political in nature than Winter Classics.
And timing is what’s key here.
When the NHL does finally come back, the league will find itself in the midst of a PR nightmare. The breadth and extent of that nightmare depends greatly on the length of the lockout and how much hockey is lost. The one thing that will remain the same, for better or worse, is that Gary Bettman will still be the NHL Commissioner. As we all know, the expansion of the NHL into non-traditional markets is the pet project of Bettman and will most likely be his legacy once he moves on from the NHL.
With the relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg and the financial turmoil in Phoenix, the league is desperate for another “win” from a non-traditional market. Combine that with the need of the league to make a huge statement upon its return and you can start to see that announcing an outdoor hockey game in the South is precisely something that Gary Bettman would do.
Not only would this game send a message to those outside of the NHL, but it would have a lasting impact on fans of clubs in non-traditional markets. These fans are the ones that will most likely be hurt the most by the current lockout. Fair or not, fans in Detroit, Toronto, Montreal and the like will return when the NHL is back simply because it’s what they do. Fans in markets like Nashville might be a bit more reluctant to embrace the league that has suffered through two work stoppages since it joined the league in 1998.
Finally, the Winter Classic is the non-playoff marquee event of the league, most likely even surpassing the All-Star game. However, the event itself has lost a bit of the wow factor that the first couple incarnations enjoyed. In order to remain fresh and relevant, the Winter Classic will need to do something unique to make sure that it continues to demand the headlines that fuel the excitement of the NHL. Playing a game outdoors in Nashville is exactly the sort of story that would be extremely newsworthy.
Make no bones about it, both the NHL owners and players will get black eyes from the second lockout in the last decade. The fans will be more hesitant to rush back to the arena after being denied the one thing that fuels their passion. Sure, awarding Nashville the Winter Classic might not be the most popular move to die-hard fans in more traditional locales, but with a league trying to re-launch its brand, this story would help make the NHL relevant again in sports while also showcasing a success story for Gary Bettman.