NHL & the Heritage Classic: How the League Can Turn It into Something Special

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NHL & the Heritage Classic: How the League Can Turn It into Something Special
Dylan Lynch/Getty Images

After years of speculation, the NHL announced last April that they would be bringing the Heritage Classic back to Canada. The second edition of the Heritage Classic was played at McMahon Stadium in Calgary on February 20, and one can speculate that in the next couple of years, nearly every Canadian team will be lobbying for the opportunity to host the game.

Upon the announcement, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman stated that “when you have a heritage as proud and as strong as we do, you want to celebrate it.” 

Despite the NHL’s announcement of the game – an announcement that, to some, came way later then it should have – the league faces certain obstacles in hosting an outdoor game in Canada that they do not experience with the Winter Classic in the US. Namely, the fact that there are many more places to host the game in the States then there are in Canada.

Assuming the Winter Classic will only be held in cities in the northern United States, there are a total of at least eleven cities (including Washington) that could host the Winter Classic.

Discounting all the cities that have already hosted or are scheduled to host the event, we are left with New York City/New Jersey (an area that could potentially host more than one Winter Classic in a few years), Philadelphia, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Denver, Columbus and Detroit. Each of these cities have NFL or MLB stadiums that could easily host a Winter Classic.

In Canada, the list of potential hosts/stadiums is much smaller. Only five of the six NHL cities have a CFL stadium that would be capable of hosting the Heritage Classic – Ottawa currently does not have a stadium due to the demolition of part of the south-side stands at Frank Clair Stadium in 2008.

Here is a look at the stadiums in each city that could potentially host the Heritage Classic:

  • Vancouver: BC Place Stadium (capacity: 60,000; home to the BC Lions; currently under renovations to add a retractable roof)
  • Calgary: McMahon Stadium (capacity: 35,650, expandable to approximately 50,000; home to the Calgary Stampeders; will host the 2011 Heritage Classic)
  • Edmonton: Commonwealth Stadium (capacity: 60,081; home to the Edmonton Eskimos; host of the 2003 Heritage Classic)
  • Toronto: Rogers Centre (capacity: 54,000; home to the Toronto Argonauts and the Toronto Blue Jays), BMO Field (capacity: 22,100; home to Toronto FC)
  • Montreal: Stade Olympique (capacity: 66,308; no permanent tenant), Percival Molson Memorial Stadium (capacity: 25,012; home to the Montreal Alouettes)

As you can see, there are very few places in Canada to host the Heritage Classic. To make it even more problematic, we should also note that Calgary and Edmonton will host/have hosted the game already. Furthermore, the main stadiums in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal are all domed or have a retractable roof; an indoor game is not what comes to mind when thinking of the Heritage Classic, is it? The only other options left in Toronto and Montreal are their smaller stadiums, which are open-air stadiums, but of very small capacity.

So where does that leave the league? In my opinion, it leaves them in a very good position. The lack of stadiums in NHL cities leaves the league with an option that, if chosen, could turn the Heritage Classic from “Canada’s consolation Winter Classic” into something truly special and celebratory of hockey in Canada.

What is this option? Well, while there might be a lack of stadiums in NHL cities, there certainly is not a lack of stadiums in cities without a NHL team. Throughout Canada, there are several cities that have CFL-sized stadiums that could easily be filled by rabid hockey fans.

Non-NHL cities in Canada with CFL stadiums:

  • Regina: Mosaic Stadium at Taylor Field (capacity: 30,048, expandable to approximately 55,000; home to the Saskatchewan Roughriders)
  • Winnipeg: Canad Inns Stadium (capacity: 29,533, expandable to 44,784; home to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers), New Winnipeg Blue Bombers Stadium (capacity: 33,000, expandable to 45,000; currently under construction with planned opening in 2012)
  • Hamilton: Ivor Wynne Stadium (capacity: 30,000, expandable to 43,000; home to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats)

Why would the NHL want to play a Heritage Classic in a city like Regina instead of Toronto?

Hosting the game in a non-NHL city would make the game that much more special; it would be something that would immediately separate the game from the Winter Classic. This would turn the game into more than just an outdoor NHL game; this could turn the game into a nationwide sporting event. Whereas the Winter Classic seems to be mostly an attempt by the league to get promotion down in the States, the Heritage Classic could reflect its name and become a game that celebrates hockey's heritage throughout Canada, and not just in six cities.

On the business side, hosting the game in three NHL-starved cities would make team owners see dollar signs. Each city (well, Saskatoon instead of Regina) has been surrounded by rumours that they would get their own NHL team. Bringing the Heritage Classic would be the next best thing. Tickets and jerseys would be snapped up within seconds, regardless of which teams were playing. Furthermore, this would give the NHL a good sense of what to expect in Winnipeg, with a franchise returning, and in Hamilton, a city petitioning for the addition of an NHL team.

Like I said, the tickets will sell regardless of teams. This could very well be a chance for non-northern teams to get a chance to celebrate their teams and earn some extra money. For example, there have been so many rumours of Ice Edge bringing the Phoenix Coyotes to play five games in Saskatoon. If that happens, why not let the Coyotes play a Heritage Classic in front of a friendly Saskatchewan crowd? It would make new fans, as well as make more money than any potential game in Glendale.

I’m not suggesting that the NHL ignore its own cities. Far from it. The NHL should only consider hosting the Heritage Classic in a non-NHL city after each city gets a turn. But, in six years, when every team has had a chance (assuming Ottawa finally gets a new stadium, that is), why not host the Heritage Classic somewhere else?

You have three cities full of fans that would drool at the chance to host a game of this size; fans that would pay hundreds of dollars to fill their stadiums and buy new jerseys.

Hosting the Heritage Classic in a city like Regina would turn the game into what it should be; a nationwide celebration of the greatest game on Earth. Hopefully the NHL will explore this option. In the end, it might be too lucrative for them to ignore.

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