PHILADELPHIA — It’s not hard to imagine the Washington Capitals in the Winter Classic. Last season, they played at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh against the Penguins, but the dream is that spectacle at home.
It won’t have to be much of a fight. Washington was assured of being a Winter Classic host, thanks to the Caps’ involvement as the visiting team last season. There is no official plan for when the NHL’s biggest regular-season show will come to the nation’s capital.
On every level, the organization would love to get the Winter Classic, which could rev up even more interest in hockey in the District as well as be a big-revenue event.
Saturday, NHL chief operating officer John Collins mentioned New York and Detroit as places the event could go after Philadelphia this year. That fits the pattern of visiting Winter Classic teams hosting soon after, but it also figures to mean Washington has a good place in line.
“We made that arrangement with the league that if you wanted us to play in Pittsburgh, you’ve got to make sure we’re playing here in the next couple years,” general manager George McPhee said before this season. “The league agreed to that.”
Next year is not looking likely for a D.C. Classic, with Detroit and Minneapolis serving as likely favorites. Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch also owns the Detroit Tigers, so Comerica Park might be a better bet than Michigan Stadium, otherwise known as “The Big House.” Target Field is another possibility.
The Capitals, though, know they’ll be rewarded soon enough - likely in 2014 or 2015.
“It was an honor for us to not only be selected for the 2011 game but also for the NHL to commit to bringing the Winter Classic to our fans,” owner Ted Leonsis said in an email. “We were extremely appreciative and look forward to the opportunity to showcase our great city and passionate fans. This is so much more than a one-day event. It is several days of pure hockey enjoyment that will be great for our fans and great for our city and surrounding communities.”
Saturday’s alumni game sold out with an attendance of more than 45,000 at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies' stadium also is hosting a college game, a high school game and an American Hockey League game between Hershey Bears and Adirondack as part of the festivities. A similar experience could be in store in Washington.
One big question would be where to hold a Winter Classic here, with Nationals Park and FedEx Field figuring to be the prime candidates. Nationals owner Mark Lerner also is a partner in the Caps, and the park’s location inside the District and Metro accessibility helps its cause.
“I would probably prefer the Nationals Park because it’s a little bit closer,” Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said. “It’s a pretty nice stadium. I think it would be pretty cool.”
Of the five Winter Classics, three will have taken place at baseball stadiums and two at football stadiums. FedEx Field could hold more fans, but Nationals Park offers better ambience and no concerns about having to work around the Redskins’ schedule.
But center Jeff Halpern, who grew up in Potomac, Md., raised an even more intriguing possibility.
“I think at some point they’ll do something in a completely different venue, whether it’s Central Park or, I think on the Mall in D.C. would be unbelievable,” the 35-year-old forward said. “If they could figure out a way to put bleachers in there for one game, I think something like that, playing in front of the [Washington] Monument, and the White House and the Lincoln, I think that’d be a great thing.”
From the NHL’s perspective, the idea of the Winter Classic is “the spectacle of something in a place that it’s not supposed to happen,” according to Cara Schneider of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp.
“In a time where everything’s so conventional, there’s something great about hearty people strapping on hats and gloves and braving the cold,” she said.
Washington on New Year’s Day - which would be a Wednesday in 2014 and a Thursday in 2015 - might not be that cold. Last year’s game in Pittsburgh had to be moved back to 8 p.m. because of rain, and this year’s was expected to feature temperatures around 40 degrees with wind.
It could be 60 degrees here that time of year, but given the NHL’s ability to make and maintain ice at those temperatures, a moderate-weather game would not disqualify the D.C. area.
“Temperature-wise and weather-wise, the worst thing that could’ve happened happened in Pittsburgh and we got through it,” McPhee said.
Logistics like the condition of the ice and uncontrollable elements such as the weather can’t be planned, but a Winter Classic in Washington would be a profitable endeavor. The event has meant anywhere from $22 million to $36 million in local economic impact (the latter in Boston), and it would pour at least $20 million in locally, according to sports economy analyst Lisa Delpy Neirotti of George Washington University.
She said a game at Nationals Park against a team farther away (such as the New Jersey Devils) could produce more money thanks to visitors spending nights in hotels and eating at downtown restaurants. Neirotti said a Winter Classic here could have fringe benefits that go beyond the season of the game.
“We’re not a big New Year’s city. I would suggest if we do get it that the city does something special,” she said. “Maybe do fireworks on that New Year’s Eve to make it a special event and attract more people to come in.”
There’s also the free advertising that comes with intense media coverage and TV exposure on NBC, NBC Sports Network and NHL Network. Because of all that, just about every team has expressed interest in hosting a Winter Classic.
“I think it would be great for any market,” Halpern said. “But I definitely think the D.C. market is as deserving as any other market to host it.”
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