This year’s Winter Classic event matched up two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference and again raised the expectations of this annual event. The game featured strong play on both fronts, a come-from-behind victory by the New York Rangers and a nail-biting penalty shot save in the waning seconds of the game by Rangers goalie Henrik Lundquist to preserve the victory. It had all of the makings of a successful Winter Classic. So where does the NHL go from here?
In five Winter Classic games, the Western Conference has only hosted one. That came in 2009 when the Detroit Red Wings bested the Chicago Blackhawks 6-4 at Wrigley Field. The other four games have all been intra-conference matchups with Eastern Conference teams. Logically, the NHL and NBC should go back West. And Detroit would be the perfect spot to do it.
Cold, gray, and one of the most successful NHL franchises of the past two decades, Detroit would be the perfect setting for the next NHL Winter Classic. Plus, the NHL would have their pick of venues for the annual contest. If they wanted to stay within the confines of the city, Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers, would be a perfect place to set up shop. However, if the NHL really wanted to go big and continue to raise the stakes, they would move west just down the freeway and take the game to Michigan Stadium where they could cram in more than 100,000 spectators while playing the game on one of the most storied football fields in college football history.
So now you have the Detroit Red Wings involved, one of the most popular NHL franchises in recent history, along with one of the biggest venues in the nation. So who does the NHL choose to bring in as an opponent for this event? While the NHL certainly has their pick of the litter, two teams immediately come to mind: San Jose and Toronto.
The Sharks have been a thorn in the side of the Red Wings for several seasons now. The teams have met in the playoffs in each of the past two seasons and both times the Sharks defeated the Wings. Both teams are highly skilled, puck-possession teams with big name talent on their rosters. Plus, finally bringing in a West-coast team could garner the game more attention from West coast fans that have thus far had no reason to really tune into the game.
The other opponent could be the Toronto Maple Leafs and, all things considered, this is the most likely. Not only would a Toronto-Detroit matchup bring together two Original Six teams for one of the biggest NHL events of the year, but it would also finally get a Canadian team involved in the matchup. Plus, Toronto is a four-hour drive to Detroit and tons of fans would be willing to make the trek. The arena would easily be just as many Maple Leafs fans as Red Wings fans.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman refuses to tip his hand as to whom the next host city and opponent could be, but what he has said might indicate that Detroit could be in the running for the game.
“My guess is it will be played in a place we have not been before,” Bettman said. “So, therefore, in the U.S., you’ve eliminated five locations. You can play with the other 25, play with geography and understand that temperature is a factor…You can eliminate some of the warmer climates. We are not probably going to go back to where we have been.”
That statement also leaves Minnesota, Winnipeg, Toronto, Columbus, New Jersey and several other cities in the running for the game as well. But none of those teams would be as big of a draw as the Red Wings, and none of those host cities could offer a location like The Big House where they could cram in more than 100,000 spectators – something that even Leafs forward Nazem Kadri wants to be a part of.
I think at the Michigan stadium — what does it hold, like 100,000-plus?” said Kadri. “That would be a ridiculous game to be a part of. It would be a dream come true.”
What do you think? Which matchups do you most want to see for next year’s NHL Winter Classic?