The City Of Columbus Is Ready To Host An Outdoor Hockey Game

By Dan Dukart on January 3, 2019 at 10:31 am
The Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks face off in the NHL's 11th Winter Classic, hosted by Notre Dame.

Matt Cashore – USA TODAY Sports

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For the third time in six years, the citizens of Columbus have watched a big game with plenty of pageantry at a beautiful college football stadium on New Year's Day. Why not add a hockey game to the mix?

The NHL's premier regular season event is the Winter Classic. Despite losing some of its luster in recent years, it's still a game filled with pomp and circumstance, especially compared with the other 81 regular season games on either of the two competing teams' schedules. This year's was no different, with the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks providing a magnificent game that was commenced with a dramatic entry from the bowels of Notre Dame Stadium.

This year's January 1st game was held, for the second time in 11 Winter Classics, at a cavernous, Midwest, college football cathedral. In 2014, the Detroit Red Wings hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Big House in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in front of 105,491 fans. 

For years, the Blue Jackets (and the city of Columbus, frankly) were hardly on the NHL's radar for a team to play in, much less host, a big event. After seasons of futile in dysfunction, the team lacked the national appeal or the sustained success to be in the conversation for such a revenue-generating game. But that's starting to change.

After making the playoffs for back-to-back years and on the verge of making it again, the franchise is starting to gain legitimate traction in the league. 

Still, a casual hockey fan that is channel flipping between New Year's Six bowl games and the Winter Classic would assume there are five, maybe six teams in the NHL. 

Number of Appearances in the Winter Classic
Rank Number Team
1 4 Chicago Blackhawks
2 3 Boston Bruins
T-3 2 New York Rangers
T-3 2 Washington Capitals
T-3 2 Detroit Red Wings
T-3 2 Pittsburgh Penguins
T-3 2 Buffalo Sabres
T-3 2 Philadelphia Flyers
T-9 1 Montreal Canadiens
T-9 1 St. Louis Blues
T-9 1 Toronto Maple Leafs

In 2014, as many other NHL franchises felt left out at the big dance, the league introduced the 'Stadium Series', a non-NYE game that is also held outdoors, that still provided exposure to franchises, and is a big deal to the local fan base, all while generating much larger revenues than a normal regular season affair. It's been a relative success, and nine Stadium Series games have taken place since its inception.

Still, there are eight teams that are waiting for their first chance at an outdoor game (Columbus is, in case you couldn't tell, one of them).

The NHL recently announced that the 2020 Winter Classic is heading to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas, where the Stars will host an unnamed opponent. Heading to a "non-traditional" market is a step in the right direction for a product that could use a spark. So, too, could the Horseshoe at The Ohio State University.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman's comments signify that the league is aware of this. Here's what he said at Kraft Hockeyville USA in Clinton, N.Y., in a September preseason game between the Blue Jackets and Sabres.

“It’s obvious that the team is competitive, that they’re playing exciting hockey, that the fans are reacting in positive ways... It’s even at the point where, internally – we’re not there yet – we have started focusing on the possibility of an outdoor game. So, we view Columbus as a great success story.

There’s a big football stadium there, last time I checked. We’ve put on 24 outdoor games. I think we kind of know what’s involved and we’re excited to see how well Columbus is doing.”

It's evident that the NHL thinks highly of playing the Winter Classic at a prestigious, big-time college football stadium. There's more history and cache, and frankly, more seats mean more revenue. No offense to Flushing, New York's, Citi Field, but it doesn't exactly move the needle, even locally. 

Playing a game five miles from Nationwide Arena at the 'Shoe would check a lot of boxes for the NHL. And even in a Stadium Series capacity, an outdoor game would provide the city of Columbus another opportunity to showcase itself in front of a national audience.

Perhaps an underappreciated benefit to selecting Columbus as a host is the number and quality of viable opponents. The Detroit Red Wings would make a ton of sense, as they're geographically close, have a national audience as one of the NHL's Original Six franchises, and Columbus is home to many Red Wings fans from the pre-Blue Jackets era, while even achieving the Ohio vs. Michigan dynamic. The Pittsburgh Penguins, who would also travel quite well for a game at Ohio State, would also fulfill the NHL's requirement for having a marquee team in the showcase, to say nothing of the two playoff series between the two clubs in recent years. 

As more and more teams have an opportunity to host an outdoor game, Columbus remains on the sidelines (no pun intended). With a positive track record of hosting large NHL events in the past, an improved team, and a premier venue, it seems like it's only a matter of time before the league selects Columbus to have its turn.

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