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Under the Lights

| December 11, 2017 | 0 Comments

The 2017 Bridgestone Winter Classic was staged at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
Photo courtesy of JASEN VINLOVE/USA TODAY SPORTS

 

With the National Hockey League celebrating its centennial this season, the league is staging a record number of special events across the globe. It’s also blazing new ground with the launch of the Vegas Golden Knights, the first major professional team to be based in Las Vegas.

The league has taken an ambitious approach to its 100th-anniversary season. The schedule features the popular outdoor events that have put the sport on a big stage in recent years, and it also includes more international games as well as homegrown events designed to expand the league’s reach in smaller markets.

“These events were purely developed with the 100-year anniversary of the league in mind,” said Steve Mayer, executive vice-president and chief content officer for the NHL. “This was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime year, and we knew we wanted to do things that would recognize what has been an incredible century.”

International Flavor

Given the significant number of international players on each of the 31 NHL teams, it makes sense to take the game to fans in other parts of the world. In September, the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks played the league’s first preseason games in China, one in Shanghai and another in Beijing.

“In China there’s huge interest in winter sports,” Mayer said. “Knowledge of hockey is slim to none, but the market has such incredible upside. We love that.”

In November, the NHL landed in Stockholm, Sweden, for a pair of contests between the Colorado Avalanche and the Ottawa Senators, the first time since 2011 that the NHL has traveled to Europe for regular-season games. They were the seventh and eighth NHL regular-season matchups played in Sweden, and the 21st and 22nd in Europe.

The Great Outdoors

Back in the United States, there will be three outdoor games during the 2017–2018 season. The Scotiabank NHL 100 Classic will take place December 16 at TD Place Stadium in Ottawa, Canada, between the hometown Senators and Montreal Canadiens. The game will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the league’s first game, played on December 19, 1917, and will also pay tribute to Canada’s celebrations of 150 years of nationhood and the 125th anniversary of the Stanley Cup (the trophy was awarded to Canada’s amateur hockey champions before it was adopted by the NHL).

The Bridgestone Winter Classic, played annually on New Year’s Day, is perhaps the league’s most popular special event. The 2018 installment features the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres at Citi Field, home of the New York Mets. This game marks the 10th staging of the NHL Winter Classic, first held in 2008.

Mayer said the Classic has become “one of the great events in all of sports.” He added that in the beginning, people thought an outdoor hockey game on New Year’s Day was a crazy idea. But they couldn’t have scripted it any better that first year. “The stars aligned,” he recalled. “It snowed, there was a huge crowd, and [Pittsburgh Penguins star]Sidney Crosby scored the game-winning goal.”

A decade later, the game garners plenty of local and national attention. The league wanted to bring it back to New York this year, because it’s one of the largest markets in the league.

The final outdoor game of the season offers another milestone for the NHL, as the Coors Light Stadium Series will be held at a military service academy for the first time. On March 3, the Washington Capitals will host the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. The game will be played at Navy–Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, which has a seating capacity of 34,000. The stadium opened in 1959 and serves as the home for Navy football and lacrosse and the Chesapeake Bayhawks of Major League Lacrosse. The venue also hosts the Military Bowl, which will take place December 28.

Mayer said the league plans to host more outdoor games at the other U.S. service academies over the next several years. “Why not showcase our love of all those who have served our country and fought for us and our freedoms and do it where we can best honor them, in their own backyard,” Mayer said. “We felt it was really, really important and a great way to give back, but at the same time put on a signature event around that experience.”

Frank DiVenti, chief marketing officer for Visit Annapolis & Anne Arundel County, said Navy–Marine Corps Memorial Stadium is the perfect venue to host an outdoor NHL game because of its excellent sight lines. “It’s impressive that the NHL sees the advantage of the stadium and is willing to wrap their arms around such a small town, as compared to a major city like D.C.,” DiVenti said. “Annapolis has been able to handle events on the national stage.”

When a large-scale event like the NHL’s Stadium Series comes to town, it brings with it plenty of free advertising, which is a huge benefit. “I could never afford to pay, as an organization, for the amount of branding and marketing advantages from these events,” DiVenti said.

Visit Annapolis & Anne Arundel County did come up with ways to promote the destination, and the stadium series, in the Canadian marketplace. “Everybody kind of overlooks the visiting team as an option to promote the city,” DiVenti said. In August and September, his group ran two Sunday inserts in Toronto newspapers and had video signage in the subways there.

Tampa Sees Stars

When you think of hockey hotbeds, Midwest and Northeast destinations like Grand Forks, North Dakota, Minneapolis–St. Paul and Boston come to mind. But you can add Tampa, Florida, to that list as well.

Tampa has hosted two successful NCAA Men’s Frozen Fours (in 2012 and 2016) and the NHL All-Star Game (1999), and more than 14,000 people have bought season tickets for the city’s NHL franchise, the Tampa Bay Lightning, now playing in their 25th season. Even the growth of hockey at the youth level has exploded.

In May, the city of Tampa received further validation as a hockey town when it was awarded the 63rd NHL All-Star Game, to be played at Amalie Arena, home of the Lightning, on January 28.

Just because you may live in a temperate climate doesn’t mean your city can’t qualify as a hockey hotbed. “It’s OK to walk around in your favorite hockey sweater and soak up the 70-
degree temperatures,” said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission.

The decision to host an All-Star Game this season came as something of a surprise. Pyeongchang, South Korea, will host the Olympic Winter Games in February, and during past Olympic years the NHL has interrupted its season for several weeks and canceled the All-Star Games to allow players time to compete for their national teams. This year, however, the NHL chose not to allow its players to participate in the Olympics, citing concerns about costs, the impact on the league’s schedule and the possibility of injuries. It will be the first time since 1998 that NHL players will not be Olympians.

The Olympics’ loss is Tampa’s gain. “We’re absolutely thrilled at the opportunity to host the NHL All-Star Weekend,” said Higgins. “It’s been nearly 20 years since the last time we hosted. Our community has changed dramatically the last couple of decades, with the transformation of downtown and several new hotels and event venues.”

Higgins anticipates up to 10,000 hotel-visitor room nights for the All-Star festivities, and he said he’s committed to making sure “that from the moment those attendees get off the plane to the moment they get back on the plane, they’ve got memories that will last a lifetime.”

Back to Their Roots

You can hear the passion in Jim Murphy’s voice when he talks about hockey and the Rostraver Ice Garden. Murphy, who has owned the venue in Rostraver Township, Pennsylvania, since 1993, has poured his heart and soul into the building. The arena, just south of Pittsburgh, took a major hit in 2010 when a heavy snowfall caused the roof to collapse during a youth hockey tournament. Amazingly, all of the 400 people who were inside at the time escaped unhurt.

It was a huge blow to the arena, the local hockey community and Murphy’s bank account. But that didn’t stop him from pulling out all the stops to get the building up and running as quickly as possible. “The community rallied around me and the Ice Garden after that roof collapsed,” Murphy said. “When we first rebuilt, I didn’t have enough money to do everything that was necessary. The first three or four years, I had to work another job and couldn’t pay myself. And then things turned around.”

Turn around did they ever. Last spring, nearby Belle Vernon, Pennsylvania, was named the winner of Kraft Hockeyville USA, an annual NHL program that honors “the country’s most passionate hockey community.” The prize meant Murphy’s Ice Garden would receive $150,000 for arena upgrades and also host an NHL preseason game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues. “I’ve never won anything in my life,” Murphy said. “It was a big deal for me to get that money to be able to do these upgrades. I couldn’t have done it without that grant.” He made several major improvements to the 52-year-old arena, including installing a better ice piping system, resealing the parking lot and adding LED lights in the arena and parking area.

And, of course, hosting the Stanley Cup Champion Penguins promised a big thrill for local fans. But it was not to be. In early August, organizers determined the Ice Garden was not equipped to host an NHL preseason game. Ultimately, the facility, which opened in 1965 and hosted Penguins training camp in the 1970s, did not meet the standards required in the competition’s official rules. As a result, the September 24 game was moved 20 miles north of Pittsburgh to the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, which serves as the Penguins’ practice facility. Murphy was disappointed but nonetheless appreciated the grant money, as well as the opportunity to host a Penguins practice at the Ice Garden the morning of the preseason game. An estimated 2,300 people attended the hour-long practice. “It meant everything,” said Murphy. “People who live in these small communities never get an opportunity to interact with the players at a practice or to actually get a picture taken with the Stanley Cup. It was a big deal. These players shook their hands, signed autographs, kissed babies—they did it all.”

Members of the Belle Vernon community and youth hockey players received a majority of the tickets for the preseason game that night, and the Penguins also provided buses to transport fans to the Lemieux Sports Complex. In addition to the practice at the Ice Garden, Belle Vernon and Rostraver Township were the centerpieces of a four-day Kraft Hockeyville USA celebration that featured youth hockey and referee clinics, a 5K race, a parade (Murphy served as grand marshal), appearances by members of the Penguins and Blues organizations and a chance to see the Stanley Cup. Also, the Penguins brought their game-night entertainment crew—complete with music, videos, the anthem singer, P.A. announcer and the Penguins Ice Crew—to a Rostraver youth hockey game that week.

More than 1,300 nominations were submitted for this season’s U.S. Kraft Hockeyville contest. Belle Vernon’s victory meant that a Western Pennsylvania town has earned the honor twice, with Johnstown as the United States winner in 2015.

Since launching in Canada in 2006, Kraft Hockeyville has helped 82 communities with more than $3 million awarded in arena upgrades.

Mayer said the National Hockey League created the Kraft Hockeyville program to touch as many fans as possible. “It’s life-changing for some people,” Mayer said. “We want our fans to get an experience that’s personal, and that’s where you win people for life. They never forget that. It’s a pleasure and an honor and that’s what we love doing. Seeing the faces of our fans firsthand because of the experiences that we’ve provided them with, that’s really important.”

Plenty to Choose From

The 2017–2018 NHL season features something for just about everyone: games on international soil, in big stadiums and small venues, at military service academies and at sun-kissed arenas. The league is doing everything is can to make its 100th season memorable. Throw in a new expansion team in Las Vegas, and you have the makings of a very appealing lineup. “We are trying to create events that we would love if we were on the other side,” Mayer said. “In our world, we do make an impact.”

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Category: Cover Story

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