Back in 2008, Ted Leonsis had one overwhelming reaction as he watched the NHL Winter Classic debut with a New Year’s Day contest between the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins.
“This is the greatest thing I’ve seen,” Leonsis recalled, “And what do I have to do to get one in Washington, D.C.?”
On Saturday morning, nearly six years after Leonsis began lobbying the league to consider Washington, the Capitals were formally awarded the 2015 Winter Classic. Landing the NHL’s signature regular season event is a nod to the growing popularity of both the Capitals and hockey in the region, but many aspects of the event remain uncertain with more than 15 months before the puck drops.
The biggest questions are the venue and the opponent.
NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins said he expects the league to begin serious examination of locations for the Classic within the next month. Aside from the National Mall, which isn’t a feasible place to play an NHL game, no venue options have been eliminated.
“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 [Field], M&T [Bank Stadium in Baltimore], RFK [Stadium], 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 emphasized that while the NHL organizes and holds final say in all aspects of the Winter Classic, the league will consult with Leonsis and the Capitals on where to hold the contest. League officials have made brief visits to local stadiums over the past two years but have not done the full surveys required to determine the best location for the Classic.
The region doesn’t lack options. Nationals Park, which holds 41,546 for baseball, and aging RFK Stadium, with roughly 46,000 seats, are options within the District. In Maryland, NFL stadiums FedEx Field in Landover and M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore offer the largest seating capacities with 79,000 and 71,008, respectively. Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which holds 48,876 for baseball, also could be an option.
While the team’s fan base stretches across the region, Leonsis would prefer to see the game played in the District.
“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.”
Keeping the Classic in Washington will be a priority for the Capitals, but for the NHL it is only part of the equation.
“Obviously that would be a factor that goes into the mix, but it’s not the only factor and there are competing factors,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said. “I would say keeping a venue downtown is a positive factor. It’s not the only factor.”
Nationals Park appears to be the top candidate at this early stage, given that it is a new stadium (opened in 2008) and its location would allow for the league to make the game, related fan experience events and youth hockey rinks centrally focused in downtown Washington. Nationals owner Mark Lerner is also a minority partner in Leonsis’s Monumental Sports and Entertainment.
The ballpark is owned by the District, not the Nationals themselves, but Collins said he doesn’t believe that would be a significant hurdle. The NHL worked with the city of Chicago to reach an agreement for a Stadium Series contest at Soldier Field in March 2014.
“We come in and want to be good partners with the club and good partners with the city,” Collins said. “We’ve worked through all these issues in the past.”
Collins said he would want to name the opponent by spring 2014 at the latest so that the game can be accurately planned into the 2014-15 season schedule.
Given the league’s preference to focus on rivalry games in each of the first six Winter Classics, that likely will be the case for 2015. The Philadelphia Flyers, who have played in two Classics already and hosted one themselves in 2012, are believed to be atop the list of potential opponents.