For the second time in franchise history, the Minnesota Wild are headed outdoors. But this time – and for the first time ever – the franchise is going to be hosting the NHL’s signature New Year’s Day event.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced during Wednesday’s Winter Classic that the Wild, who previously hosted a 2016 Stadium Series game against the Chicago Blackhawks, will host the 2021 Winter Classic at Target Field in Minneapolis. Home to MLB’s Minnesota Twins, the nearly decade-old building is one of the newest in the majors, and the league will set out to pack the house and potentially challenge the attendance record – 44,152 at a Kenny Chesney concert in 2015 – when the NHL’s outdoor showcase comes to the ‘State of Hockey’.
Not yet known, however, is who the Wild will welcome on Jan. 2021, but that hasn’t stopped speculation. Some have suggested the contest could see the Wild pitted against the cross-border rival Winnipeg Jets, while others have proposed a meeting between Minnesota and the 2019-20 Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues. Unlikely, however, is that the Wild renew outdoor hostilities with either of the teams they’ve played in a previous outdoor outing – the Blackhawks and Colorado Avalanche – and it seems doubly unlikely that either the Nashville Predators or Dallas Stars, combatants in the 2020 game, will return to the Winter Classic next season.
When they host the game, Minnesota will become the 10th NHL franchise to hold the league’s biggest outdoor event of the season, which means more than two-thirds of the league has yet to host the game. So, who should follow the Wild and become the next first-time Winter Classic host?
Here are five we’d like to see:
As the saying goes, strike while the iron is hot. And the iron couldn’t be much hotter in North Carolina right now. The Hurricanes became the talk of the NHL last season with their ‘Storm Surge’ celebrations and parlayed their regular season success into a stunning run to the Eastern Conference final. Fans are starting to flock to the building, and though they aren’t league-best numbers by any stretch, the Hurricanes are currently filling PNC Arena with more than 16,000 fans per game. There are few things that could bring new eyes to the game in Raleigh quite like the outdoor game. The spectacle of it all can bring some new fans out and it’d be a win for the league if they can grow Carolina’s fanbase.
The Hurricanes also seem like an organization that would have some fun with the event. They’ve been willing to embrace the lighter side and the on-ice celebrations. The roster has some talented young players who deserve a bigger stage. Andrei Svechnikov could do the lacrosse move on outdoor ice. Plenty of reasons to consider Carolina.
If Dallas was the template for what a Western-themed Winter Classic can look like, then let’s go all-in on the idea of another outdoor game that has a dash of the Wild West. Of course, Nashville would probably have to lean into the country music theme, but your possible music preferences aside, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The players looked to have fun playing a bit of dress-up for the Winter Classic and, thematically, it’s something a bit different.
Some will certainly argue that it’s too soon to put the Predators in a second Winter Classic. We see that and raise you the Blackhawks. Chicago appeared in three Winter Classics in five seasons, twice as the visitor and once as the host, between 2015 and 2019. With that in mind, there’s no reason the Predators shouldn’t be considered for hosting duties for the Winter Classic in the near future. Plus, uh, if the league wants to shoehorn the Blackhawks into yet another outdoor game, at least the Predators are a natural rival.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The 2020 Winter Classic was the second-most attended outdoor game in NHL history. More than 85,000 fans walked through the turnstiles at the Cotton Bowl. And make no mistake that putting up gaudy attendance figures means something to the NHL. It’s a feat to flaunt, proof positive of the game’s popularity, and it’s something the league will surely take into consideration as it picks future venues.
It’s for that reason that the Blue Jackets – and Ohio Stadium – should be on the short list of potential hosts. With a capacity of more than 102,000, ‘The Shoe’ is listed as the third-largest stadium in all of college football and is roughly 10,000 seats larger than the Cotton Bowl. That’s the first plus for Columbus. The second is geography. It’s a three-hour drive from Pittsburgh, a seven-hour trek from Philadelphia and only an additional hour and a half to New York. Those are all drivable distances or short flights and areas chock full of hockey fans.
If the NHL marketed the game right and put, say, the Penguins in the game against the first-timer Blue Jackets, it seems like a slam dunk decision. Promote it endlessly, put together some packages for fans and try to fill the house. A Winter Classic in Columbus might be the only one that comes close to challenging the 2014 contest’s record 105,491 attendance.
Traditionally, the Winter Classic has been held in the United States. Not a single one of the dozen games to this point – or the 13 games that will have taken place once the 2021 Winter Classic is played – have occurred north of the border. Canadian teams have played in the games, of course, as both the Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs have skated in Winter Classics, but not once has a Canadian team been the host. That’s in part because the outdoor event is an initiative to grow the game in the United States and also in part because Canada has been given the Heritage Classic, but that isn’t given quite the same treatment as the showcase New Year’s Day game.
Now, the Winter Classic staying south is probably not going to change any time soon. And truth be told, when it does, chances are the first Winter Classic on Canadian soil will end up in Toronto. But it is high time the Canadiens host an outdoor game – hard to believe they haven’t, right? – and what better way to hand the league’s most decorated franchise an outdoor game than by giving them the chance to host the signature outdoor outing. Just imagine the legends in attendance.
Vegas Golden Knights
Yes, yes, yes. Surely there will be those who read this and pooh-pooh the suggestion. “It’s a desert! It’s too hot to host an outdoor game! It can’t be done!” Oh, but it can and it has. In September 1991, the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers played an outdoor game outside Caesars Palace to a crowd of 13,000 fans. Granted, that was an exhibition game, but, hey, there’s a precedent.
It’s also impossible to now suggest that the NHL’s ice-making crew couldn’t get the job done after the work they did to put the ice down in Dallas. According to AccuWeather, the historical average temperature on Jan. 1 in Dallas is 56 F (13 C) and 55 F (13 C) in Las Vegas. It was 57 F (14 C) in Dallas for Wednesday’s game and 53 F (12 C) in Las Vegas. So, we also know the league has the technology to put the ice down in Nevada.
And finally – and most importantly, as far as the NHL should be concerned – you have to think about the spectacle. No organization puts on a better show than the Golden Knights. With all eyes on the Winter Classic that day, you can rest assured Vegas would pull out all the stops. That alone should be reason to give the game to the Golden Knights.
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