Some interesting and exciting news spiced up a relatively quiet Thursday when word got out that USA Hockey was awarding the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championships to Buffalo. The most notable piece of news, apart from who would be hosting, is that an outdoor game would be part of the 2018 tournament.
While the Sabres and the city did a fabulous job hosting the event in 2011 the 2018 edition will have the added wrinkle of an outdoor game. This is undoubtedly the biggest part of the whole announcement simply because Buffalo was always seen as leaders in the clubhouse to win the bid. When word filtered around social media of the outdoor game the first reaction was centered around who would play in it, and how could Team USA and Team Canada be guaranteed to be the ones facing off at the 50 yard line at Ralph Wilson Stadium. The tournament field has yet to be confirmed, let alone the schedule, but as Frank Seravalli of TSN reported the host city may petition to move a team from one group to another. This would make a USA-Canada match up at The Ralph a near certainty.
For what it’s worth, as long as Canada is playing it I think the outdoor game will be a quick sellout regardless who they line up against. The more than 70,000 people certain to pack the stadium would be the biggest crowd ever to watch a junior hockey game and all but guarantee the 2018 tournament be record breaking when it comes to attendance.
Once people got over the initial excitement of there being another outdoor game to look forward to in a few years speculation began to swirl that the Sabres were a slam dunk to host the Winter Classic in 2018, creating an outdoor doubleheader of sorts. John Wawrow has reported the Sabres have officially petitioned the NHL to host the league’s marquee event but it is not a mere formality that the Sabres will be heading outdoors.
Looking at the bid presented by the Sabres and the city to host the World Juniors, it was obviously presented a while ago and obviously involved the plans for the outdoor game. The inclusion, and feasibility of, an outdoor game at World Juniors most likely would require the involvement of NHL ice guru Dan Craig, so it is not far fetched to say that the NHL was well aware of the bid and USA Hockey’s plans well before this afternoon.
The obvious benefit to giving the Winter Classic to the Sabres would be that the ice surface will be already be in place.
There’s no disputing that is a major benefit, but even playing the two games back to back would be extremely difficult. The narrative of a New Year’s Eve USA-Canada match up followed by the 2018 Winter Classic the next day is almost too good to be true. But this would differ from the college and high school games that often follow the Winter Classic in other host cities. We’re talking about two capacity games at the Ralph being played on back-to-back days. That’s a monumental task for stadium operations to handle let alone the other factors related to the IIHF and NHL governed games.
Just a short list that could play a role in making a 12-hour turnaround a challenge from the New Year’s Eve clash to the following afternoon: TV crew setup for each event, sponsor fulfillment on the ice and in the building, additional game-specific theming, ice preparation (changing the IIHF marks to NHL) and ice quality. Even if the weather is perfect for the entire lead up and both games, you’re still talking about an NHL game following closely after a WJC game played by the two teams with the most NHL talent. While it’s not a pair of NHL games, it’s about as close as you can get.
The biggest obstacle may not be due to the logistics with the World Juniors but rather the NHL. I don’t doubt that in almost any other year the NHL would love to do a doubleheader of sorts, but the timing may not be in the Sabres’ favor. The NHL will celebrate its centennial in 2017, which will most likely involve the vast majority, if not all, of the major league events being hosted by original six franchises.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have already made it known that they want to host every major NHL event in 2017. The Ottawa Senators have also displayed their interest in the 2017 Winter Classic as part of Canada’s 150th anniversary, which takes place the same year. While those two clubs have made their desires public, the most storied club in the league has also yet to host a Winter Classic. With the 2016 Classic in Boston this year and other events like the scouting combine and the draft already spoken for, the demand to host events is a bit higher than the supply.
With that being the case it is unlikely that every team sees their requests granted, which could lead to those clubs that miss out being in the running for the 2018 Winter Classic. If, for example, the Leafs do not host the event in 2017 the league would be hard pressed to explain their reasoning behind giving the 2018 version to a city that has already hosted a Winter Classic, and is hosting the combine and 2016 NHL Draft.
If everything breaks their way the last bit of business to take care would be the opponent. My feeling is that the only way Buffalo ends up with the Winter Classic in 2018 is if the Leafs and Habs face-off in the 2017 edition in Toronto. That would mean the Canadiens would play in back to back Winter Classics and the Leafs would also skate in their second, as the host this time. It would be difficult for the league to justify having Toronto or Montreal make the trip to Orchard Park for a third appearance, and with Boston having hosted two already there would be no real rival to play the Sabres on New Year’s Day 2018.
Granted, with the event being a ways away new rivalries may develop and teams that are struggling now may be on the rebound come the 2017-2018 season. If the league is really set on having the game here the easiest card for the NHL to play may be the Jack Eichel-Connor McDavid “rivalry.” While pundits and insiders love to compare the two young stars when McDavid is healthy the fact remains at if they were to meet at the Winter Classic it would be at most their 5th ever NHL game against one another; that’s hardly Crosby vs Ovechkin.
A lot can change in nearly two years but even with the World Juniors and an outdoor game of a different type coming to the city the process during which the 2018 Winter Classic will be awarded will be a very complicated one. No matter who ends up with the game in 2018 (and 2017 for that matter), some teams will be disappointed. It may be best to take what the NHL and USA Hockey have already given the city, and consider anything else a bonus rather than a given.