CHICAGO – An outdoor game in Chicago “would make a lot of sense” to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, and the site could be the “Frozen Confines” of Wrigley Field.
Bettman did not commit to staging one in the Windy City during a news conference on Wednesday, but he said the emerging Blackhawks are on the list to host one – possibly next season.
“As we do these games in the future, obviously, Chicago will make a lot of sense,” he said.
New York, Boston, Detroit, Colorado, Montreal, Toronto, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have also expressed interest in hosting an outdoor game, and Bettman said his “guess” is there will probably be one next season.
That other cities are warm to the idea is not surprising given the success of the Buffalo-Pittsburgh game at Ralph Wilson Stadium on New Year’s Day. An NHL-record 71,217 fans watched the Winter Classic, which the Penguins won 2-1 in a shootout, and the league would like to capitalize on the buzz that game generated.
It also has a delicate balance to strike.
Too many outdoor games would kill the buzz. And too long a wait between them could have the same effect.
“There was a special, almost romantic, emotional, exciting, holistic quality to what took place in returning to our outdoor roots,” Bettman said. “If you do it too much, I think you lose some of that quality. Everything we do, we want it to be special in the outdoor-game context.”
And Blackhawks president John McDonough believes a game in Chicago would be just that: special.
An Original Six franchise, the Blackhawks boast a young team that is contending for a playoff spot and reconnecting with the fan base. The arena is starting to fill up, and McDonough thinks an outdoor game would build on that momentum, which explains why he’s lobbying hard. Given his long tenure in the Chicago Cubs’ front office, it’s not a leap to say Wrigley Field is the front-runner for now over the city’s other stadiums. The Blackhawks tried two years ago to get a game at Soldier Field but couldn’t come to terms with the Chicago Park District.
“I had strong relationships with the Cubs for 25 years,” said McDonough, who was president of the Cubs before coming to the Blackhawks in November. “Their ownership group and their organization are aware of our interest. We’ll see where it goes. If we’re fortunate enough to secure the game, we’ll find out.”
A hockey game on the North Side would be like “what the first night game was at Wrigley, only in the winter,” he said. “It would be so special. It would be once-in-a-lifetime, unique, never-before-seen. The city would embrace it. I could only imagine how popular this would be.”
One potential obstacle is the New York Rangers’ desire to play at Yankee Stadium before it gets torn down for a new ballpark. Other cities on the list also boast long traditions and historic venues.
Even so, McDonough thinks it’s a matter of when – not if – Chicago gets an outdoor game.
“I do believe this game will land in Chicago at some point,” said McDonough, who is also trying to bring the all-star game to Chicago. “I don’t know what the timeframe is.”
Bettman said staging an outdoor game is a “massive undertaking” that is “hugely expensive,” and that the league has not performed “any due diligence” toward determining the site of the next one. A tour of Wrigley Field – or the city’s other stadiums – was not on the itinerary for this trip.
Weather is a big factor in determining the next venue for an outdoor game, along with the sight lines and whether the stadium’s surface could support a rink.
“You’ve got to look at the entirety of the circumstances before making that decision,” Bettman said.
McDonough believes the circumstances in Chicago are perfect.
“John has been passionate – and that’s an understatement – on behalf of both the city of Chicago and the Blackhawks,” Bettman said. “He has made sure the interest, the importance and the feasibility has been front and centre on my radar screen, and it is something that he reinforces in every conversation that we have so he is making sure that it never leaves my radar screen.”