PITTSBURGH | Saturday afternoon’s National Hockey League game between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins is officially known as Game No. 566 on this year’s 1,230-game schedule — but this particular contest carries a lot more weight.
The outdoor faceoff on New Year's Day is the fourth annual installment of what is better known as the “Winter Classic,” and the NHL, NBC, the teams and this western Pennsylvania city all hope to cash in on what is easily the most heavily promoted regular-season game in the league’s 93 seasons.
What’s more, skating on a temporary rink constructed on the grass surface of Heinz Field, the home of the NFL’s Steelers, will be two of hockey’s biggest names, Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin and Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby.
The Winter Classic has “certainly become very, very popular, one of the biggest events the league puts on,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said during a stop in Washington last week. “I would never say it’s replacing the All-Star Game [as the league’s signature regular-season event] … but with two [standings] points on the line, it’s real, and it being outdoors is kind of cool.”
When the Winter Classic started on New Year's Day 2008 at Ralph Wilson Stadium outside Buffalo, N.Y., the league wasn’t even sure it would be able to sell enough tickets to fill the venue, but the game sold out its 71,217 tickets in less than 30 minutes.
Just as important to the league and NBC, the ratings — which for hockey normally lag well behind those of the National Football League, Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association — were the highest for an NHL regular-season game in 12 years, thanks to the made-for-TV wintry scene during the Penguins‘ 2-1 shootout win over the Buffalo Sabres in the Winter Classic’s debut.
The financial success of that original faceoff led the league to hold Winter Classics at a pair of iconic baseball parks, taking over Chicago’s Wrigley Field in 2009 and Boston’s Fenway Park in 2010. The concept also was named “Best New Sporting Event Brand” by Forbes magazine last winter.
For all its growth in such a short time period, the hype and attention surrounding this year’s game is even greater, and so are the expectations financially and ratings-wise for the NHL.
This year’s game not only has spawned the usual licensed merchandise — everything from specially designed retro jerseys for both teams for the game to the usual T-shirts and very unusual bottles of Winter Classic wine — but also is the basis for a four-part reality series on HBO called “24/7: Penguins-Capitals.”
With the pay network featuring the NHL for just the second time, cameras have followed the two teams around during December, filming inside locker rooms at times when reporters normally aren’t allowed and airing candid speeches and inside looks at both clubs.
“I think it’s fair to say [the Winter Classic is] building every year,” Mr. Daly said. “It’s getting bigger, and certainly the ‘24/7’ show has brought a lot of buzz and attention to these two teams [and] to the game itself. … The concept seems to be working, and the response from fans has been overwhelming in terms of the inside look.”
“I’m eager to get it over with, quite frankly,” Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau jokingly told reporters Tuesday. “There’s been so much buildup.”
This year’s game also comes at an important juncture for the NHL, whose U.S. television broadcast contract with NBC is up after the current season. While the league had to accept a no-fee deal from the network coming out of the lockout that canceled the 2004-05 season, the three Winter Classics have been the highest-rated NHL regular-season games of the decade.
With the game’s biggest two stars in this year’s contest — and the hype surrounding the event — the league is hoping to cash in when it renegotiates its current deal.
“NBC has been a big reason why we’re doing this game,” Mr. Daly said. “They were supportive of the initiative from the start; they had a time slot on New Year's Day available and thought it would be a good fit for that time slot … . They have an interest in it going forward and an interest in making it special. That gets wrapped into a broader negotiation going forward. It’s something that NBC likes doing and attracts them to our package.”
The host city also is looking to cash in on fans heading to the Steel City for the event. Pittsburgh officials said last week they expect the weekend to generate $23 million for the region from such sources as taxes on tickets and hotel rooms, and spending on meals and merchandise. Hotel rooms, which in a typical year are readily available for New Year’s Eve, are hard to find in the city’s core this year.
Jersey sales, a barometer of overall merchandise sales, have been 24 percent better than for last year’s faceoff between Boston and Philadelphia, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Tickets, which range from $49 to $250 at face value, are listed for much more than that on the secondary market. Of the approximately 65,000 tickets available for the game, 20,000 were given to the Capitals to distribute to its season-ticket holders. Despite the steep cost — and limited sightlines created by placing an NHL-sized rink in the middle of an NFL field — Pittsburgh officials said they expect 30,000 fans from Washington to attend the event.
Although the action is 250 miles away from Washington this weekend, local officials also will be watching closely. The NHL has promised the Capitals to bring the event to the area in the next two or three years, with the “front-runners” to host the event being FedEx Field or Nationals Park, according to Mr. Daly.
“We were able to work with the NFL and the Steelers this time around. … I’m sure we’d get the same cooperation [with the Redskins], but we’d have to take a look at that,” he said. “Quite frankly, we’ve looked at both venues … We think both would work, but we’d have to look at the scenarios.”
One concern out of the NHL’s control is this weekend’s weather. While the league can play the game in warmer weather, a chance of rain is forecast during the game, which could make the surface unplayable and force the league to push the game back to Saturday night or even as late as Sunday afternoon.
“It’s something you’ve got to deal with,” Mr. Crosby told reporters Monday. “It’s something that’s a possibility, but it’s not unusual for a game like that.”
Despite all the hype, the players are looking forward to playing on a big stage outside in the elements, no matter what they are.
“We have to feel like we have over the last week, where we keep building and building and building,” Washington defenseman Mike Green said Tuesday after the Capitals‘ 3-0 win over Montreal. “We still have a lot to learn, but at least we get to play in a great event like we do Saturday. It’ll be exciting.”
“It will be exciting,” Capitals forward Mike Knuble said. “It’s one of those things in your career you just want to take it all in, enjoy the game and just have fun with it.”
“I think we all feel pretty lucky to be in the game,” Mr. Crosby said. “For some of us who have played in one already, it’s another opportunity to be part of a pretty unique event. The fact that we have it here in Pittsburgh against a rival and that it’s become such a big event, I think we all just feel lucky to be a part of it.”