TORONTO (Dec. 14) — Will it be the Maple Leafs and New York Rangers in the 2017 Bridgestone Winter Classic here in town? Nothing has been confirmed, but a source with many years of connection to the National Hockey League tells me that BMO Field, on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition, is likely to host the event on Jan. 2, 2017 as part of the Maple Leafs’ 100th anniversary season.
Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, amid rampant conjecture about a new uniform and logo for its NHL team, has said it will shortly unveil plans for the Centennial celebration. “We know our fans are as excited about our Centennial season as we are,” Leafs president Brendan Shanahan told the Toronto Star. “Our plans are being done with them in mind. That being said, I will not be commenting on any of the rumors surrounding our plans until we are ready to make announcements in the new year.”
An outdoor match at BMO Field — home of Major League Soccer’s Toronto F.C. (also owned by MLSE) — would not surprise anyone that has followed such a prospect.
As recently as last July, while promoting this year’s game at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. between the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was asked about 2017 and Toronto. “We’ll have to see. It’s not a no, it’s not a yes. It’s, ‘We’ll have to see.’” Bettman told John Kryk of the Toronto Sun. “We haven’t focused on the outdoor games for the season after this. But if BMO is ready for an outdoor game, and the Maple Leafs want us to take a look at it, we’ll take a look.”
Going back to New Year’s Day, 2014, when the Leafs and Detroit Red Wings played outdoor at the University of Michigan Stadium, Chris Johnston of Sportsnet quoted then–MLSE Chief Executive Officer, Tim Leiweke. “I think if the league liked that idea we can 100 per cent get a deal done with the various government agencies and then do the renovation so we’d be ready,” Leiweke told Johnston. “A lot of it will be what the league wants. If they came to us and said `We want to shoot for that,’ we’d be ready for that.”
Leiweke spoke, at the time, before renovation plans were unveiled at BMO Field; before the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League were purchased by MLSE colleagues Larry Tanenbaum and Bell Canada Enterprises; before Tanenbaum announced the Argos would move from Rogers Centre to BMO for the 2016 season, and well before the CFL announced that next year’s Grey Cup game will be held at the eight–year–old facility. Much progress has therefore been made toward a Winter Classic outing.
Some have questioned whether BMO Field is “big enough” to host the event; wondering if Rogers Centre wouldn’t be a more appropriate venue. Apart from the fact the former SkyDome — home of the Toronto Blue Jays — has never been mentioned as a possible site for the Winter Classic, renovation and temporary seating would increase BMO to an agreeable capacity. The stadium currently holds 30,991 seats. At least 10,000 more will be added to the end zones and corner spaces for the Grey Cup game (Nov. 27, 2016). The portable stands would simply remain in place for the NHL outdoor clash just more than a month later.
The Bridgestone Winter Classic — an enormously successful product of the Bettman administration — was initially held during a snow–storm at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo on Jan. 1, 2008 (Pittsburgh defeated the Sabres, 2–1, in a shootout; Sidney Crosby scoring the winner). The event has been played in front of crowds ranging from 105,491 (at Ann Arbor, Mich., Jan. 1, 2014 — Toronto edging Detroit, 3–2, in a shootout) to 38,112 (for the 2010 game at Fenway Park in Boston — the Bruins defeating Philadelphia, 2–1, also in a shootout). The 2009 event at Chicago’s Wrigley Field (40,818) and last year’s game at Nationals Park in Washington (42,832) housed audiences similar to what BMO Field can be expanded to.
Number of seats has not been a determining factor for the NHL, which has opted for historic and intimate confines. BMO isn’t old enough to be celebrated, but its sight-lines would rank among the best for any Winter Classic to date. And, for the most part, the league has sought at least one pre–expansion team. The 2009 (Detroit at Chicago) and 2014 (Toronto at Detroit) games were pre–expansion match–ups. Ditto for the 2016 event in a few weeks (Montreal at Boston). Therefore, a Maple Leafs–New York Rangers meeting at BMO Field would follow the trend.
Moreover, how could the NHL not award the Winter Classic to the Leafs in their 100th anniversary season? Our city hasn’t yet hosted the event and one can barely imagine the excitement for the game, itself, and all the peripheral activity beforehand. New York is the only other pre–expansion team to appear in just one Winter Classic — against the Flyers, at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, Jan. 2, 2012.
It is expected the 2017 event will also be staged on Jan. 2 — a Monday — as the NHL will shy away from going head–to–head with the final weekend of the National Football League schedule.
MANY VEINS: The new Maple Leafs logo for next season will not be identical to anything from the past, but is most likely to resemble — as I’ve written here — the 1964–1967 version (below). “It will have many veins, similar to that emblem,” said a league licensing source.