Ted Leonsis made it official Saturday morning, confirming that the Capitals will host the 2015 NHL Winter Classic. But with more than 15 months before the NHL’s showcase outdoor event arrives, plenty of details still have to be sorted out.
Neither the venue nor the opponent have been determined and John Collins, the NHL’s chief operating officer, said all possibilities remain open for consideration at this stage. While the Winter Classic is an NHL event with the league playing the primary role in all logistical decisions, Collins said it will take cues from Leonsis and the Capitals on where to hold the contest.
“We haven’t ruled anything out because we haven’t really visited anything seriously,” Collins said. “We’ll get a lot of input from Ted and the organization on FedEx, M&T, RFK, Camden Yards and how that plays with Nationals Park, which obviously is a phenomenal ballpark right in the heart of where we want to be.”
Collins said he expects the league to begin its serious study of venues within the next month. NHL officials have made brief visits to a few local stadiums over the past two years, but not full-fledged surveys of the facilities that will be required to determine the best location for the Classic.
There are plenty of options in the region, including FedEx Field in Landover and M&T Bank Stadium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore. But only two viable choices exist in the District: Nationals Park and aging RFK Stadium. Asked where he would prefer to see the game played, Leonsis was blunt.
“I think it should be in Washington, D.C.,” Leonsis said. “I don’t think there’s any reason to not think that our fan base here in Washington, in D.C., wouldn’t fill the building up and I also think, from a visiting fan perspective, having it in Washington makes a lot of sense because we have all the infrastructure, hotels, restaurants and the like. It’d be good for the city.”
Nationals owner Mark Lerner is a minority partner in Leonsis’s Monumental Sports and Entertainment group and Nationals Park appears to be a front-runner to house the game. Collins doesn’t see the fact that the ballpark is owned by the District, rather than the Nationals, as a potential stumbling block, citing the NHL’s work with the city of Chicago to play one of its Stadium Series contests at Soldier Field in 2014.
How large a venue the league wants to secure, though, will certainly play a role. Within the immediate Washington region, Nationals Park holds 41,546 for baseball, RFK Stadium has roughly 46,000 seats and FedEx Field has a capacity of 79,000. When deemed necessary, the NHL has built additional seats for the Classic and did so in 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh and in 2012 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.
“The only disadvantage with baseball stadiums is capacity but they bring an advantage in that they tend to be more intimate, and particularly when the ballpark is where [Nationals Park] is situated in the city it creates other opportunities,” Collins said. “We want to do a spectator plaza, which is kind of a free zone for fans to come in and do things not just on game day but in the weeks leading up to it, which is very important for us. We’d love to set up an ancillary rink whether at spectator plaza or somewhere else in the city.”
Playing the game at Nationals Park would allow the league to focus all of the various events surrounding the Winter Classic within the District. And while the Mall isn’t an option to host the game, the possibility of having youth hockey games played there hasn’t been ruled out.
As for an opponent, Colins said the NHL likes to keep the Classic focused on rivalries. So it’s safe to expect a familiar foe facing off in the 2015 Classic against the Capitals. While nothing is finalized, the Flyers are believed to be at the top of the list of possibilities.