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Multiple Winter Classics

In a whirlwind week, NHL reveals plans to grow the game

For anyone who pays close attention, this past week was a watershed for the National Hockey League’s ongoing campaign to place the sport on the national and world stage.

There were updates as to the return of the Winter Classic, wiped out this year thanks to the NHL lockout, some more progress as to the league’s participation in next year’s Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, news of even more outdoor games, and a reset on the NHL Premiere Series, which has meant the opening of the regular season in marquee venues in Europe.

The Winter Classic returns (sort of) to Michigan Stadium

There was a much ballyhooed press conference in Detroit about 14 months ago, when the league announced that the popular Winter Classic, which is staged each year on New Year’s Day, would be set for the 114,000 Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. The participants would be Detroit and Toronto, and interest in this particular event went white hot.

Of course, it didn’t happen. The event was canceled just a few weeks into the lockout, and because of the massive logistics required to stage such an event, it was doubtful from early on that even if there was an early resolution to the labor dispute, that the Winter Classic would be a reality.

Well, this past Sunday it became official: January 1, 2014 will be the day in Michigan. Same two teams. Same event. Same hoopla. The teams unveiled classic sweaters, which incorporate design elements from uniforms worn in the early years of each franchise. And there will be multiple alumni games and minor and college games staged at Comerica Park over in Detroit.

Winter Olympics in Sochi

We are but 10 months away from the lighting of the cauldron in Sochi, Russia, and the Winter Olympic Games. Still to be determined is whether the league shut down for two weeks and allow their players to participate in the event.

The NHL, International Olympic Committee, International Ice Hockey Federation, and NHL Players Association have been discussing the matter, but as of yet there has been no formal announcement either way. One of the biggest open issues is liability for any players who might become seriously injured.

This week, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper chimed in, putting the call out to Commissioner Gary Bettman and asking that the stars be allowed to play in the Olympics.

If it happens, this may be the last time fans will see NHLers at the event for a while. The 2018 Winter Games are set for Pyeongchang, South Korea, and the idea of broadcasting live games from the other side of the planet, given the time difference, might make the NHL’s participation untenable.

The NHL began its participation in the Olympics in Nagano, Japan in 1998. (You did get up at 4am to watch Dominik Hasek and the Czechs stonewall Kazakhstan, right? Thought so.) But this was before the days of new technologies such as live streaming and social media platforms.

The NHL Premiere Series

For the past few years, the league has sent four teams to Europe to kick off the regular season. In 2011, the Buffalo Sabres traveled to Helsinki and Berlin as one of the team participants in the event. Other host cities for the Premiere Series have included Prague, Stockholm, and London.

Apparently the Premiere Series is done and over for now, as the league canceled this past year’s event due to the lockout and has no plans to stage the games this fall.

Instead, the NHL and NHLPA are exploring the idea of doing some sort of World Cup or Champions League plan to help grow the sport in Europe. It could involve NHL teams playing the top flight teams from the various leagues in Europe. But at this point the concepts are just in the discussion stage. One plan is to have a quadrennial event which would take place in between each Winter Olympics cycle.

More Winter Classics

Because one a year is not enough, there are reports now that multiple outdoor games might be staged on the February “Hockey Day in America” schedule. Los Angeles’s Dodger Stadium is reported to be the venue for one of these events.

But there’s more. Yankee Stadium also being a host venue for one of these events, the league is looking at BC Place and Vancouver for its Canada-based Heritage Classic, and several other teams, including Minnesota, Denver, Chicago, and Boston, are tossing their names in the hat for outdoor games.

By next season there could be as many as five Winter Classic style outdoor games in the NHL.

Taro Sez…

• So this is what interim head coach Ron Rolston had to say about the Buffalo fans when they heaped their scorn on the team during long lapses of poor play against New Jersey this past Sunday: “Yeah, that’s the way it’s been since I’ve been here. So we understand what it is and our job is to continue to do what we can to change that. That’s all we can do.”

Next question.

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