The 2016-17 season will be a busy one for The Center of the Hockey Universe™. With the World Cash Grab of Hockey™ and the World Junior Championship, there will be no shortage of high-level, best-on-best hockey in Toronto. The Centennial Classic outdoor game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings on New Year’s Day can’t promise a spectacle on that scale, but it does give the Leafs the big event they were seeking in their 100th season and the well-heeled fans in Toronto another place to put their money.
Ladies and gentlemen, start your wallets, because none of this is going to be cheap to see. The Centennial Classic will be the smallest of the outdoor games, largely because BMO Field can accommodate only 35,000 patrons, but that will undoubtedly be made up by sky-high ticket prices. When it comes to paying for big events and putting a ton of money into its hockey entertainment, Toronto has not even come close to reaching its saturation level. There will be no sticker shock. Nor will there be any fatigue, even with this game smack-dab in the middle of the WJC. People in Toronto eat this stuff up.
Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan characterized the afternoon this way: “What a good way to spend…after you wake up and take a few Aspirins Jan. 1, maybe have a cheeseburger to soak things up in the belly, what a great way to go out and spend the afternoon at an outdoor game.”
That makes it sound rather quaint, doesn’t it? But unless you’re very rich, willing to make a huge financial sacrifice or are lucky enough to get company tickets, there’s not much of a chance you’ll be attending. That’s the strange thing about these outdoor games. They’re billed around the romantic notion that the game is going back to its roots, but the clear objective is to make as much money is possible.
If usual patterns hold, weather should not be an issue. The average temperature for Toronto in December is a high of plus-2 degrees Celsius and a low of minus-3. For January, it’s a high of minus-1 and a low of minus-7. The NHL can definitely work with that. And the good thing is it won't conflict with the WJC at all. The round-robin portion of the tournament finishes Dec. 31 and Jan. 1 is typically a day off. The quarterfinals will go Jan. 2, with Canada moving from Toronto to Montreal for its medal-round games.
The outdoor game will be the crown jewel of the centennial celebrations for the Leafs, but it also comes in the same year, unfortunately, as the year, which marks a 50-year Stanley Cup drought. We’re going to go out on a limb here and predict the Leafs won’t win the Cup or be in the final, a series that has alluded them since they last won it all in a six-team NHL in 1967. Shanahan is definitely mindful of that balance. On one hand, the Leafs want to celebrate their history. On the other hand, their recent history hasn’t given anyone much to celebrate.
“We want to pay our respects and homage to our past and it’s a glorious past,” Shanahan said. “We haven’t been happy with the last few years here, so it’s not all going to be about looking back. A lot of it’s going to be about looking forward. We’re trying to strike that balance between respecting the past, but also showing our fans and our alumni what we plan to do going forward.”
Shanahan, who has done almost everything right since taking over the keys to the kingdom, pointed out that he’s been a big part of ending a good number of droughts. The 1997 Red Wings Stanley Cup winner ended a drought of 42 years. Shanahan was part of the Canadian team that won gold in Salt Lake in 2002, 50 years to day since Canada’s last gold medal. He was also an integral member of the 1994 World Championship team that won the first gold for Canada in 33 years.
“We’re all well aware, the people who have come to Toronto in the past couple of years, knew what we were taking on and why we were coming,” Shanahan said. “And that’s to eradicate that story at some point, knowing full well how hard it is in this league to win. That’s why we’re here. We’re here to take on that challenge. We don’t run away from that date. We don’t run away and hide from the men who have won Cups here.”
Next season will be the second season of the pain coach Mike Babcock spoke of when he was hired. The Leafs will be better without a doubt, particularly if they can get their hands on Auston Matthews (a 20 percent chance at this point) and pending unrestricted free agent Steven Stamkos (not near the slam-dunk many people believe it will be).
“We’re all competitive people,” Shanahan said. “Without deviating from what our overall plan is, we want to be good as soon as we can. It doesn’t mean you go out and stray from the plan or do something you think is not a good decision long-term.”