Commentary

Motor City, here we come?

Updated: January 2, 2012, 11:29 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- If the NHL's Winter Classic takes place in Detroit next Jan. 1, as multiple sources have told ESPN.com is a distinct possibility, it would represent a no-brainer of a decision for the league.

But the success of the event from a marketing and profile standpoint means the league will have an ongoing dilemma with how to balance opening up the event to more teams and markets while ensuring that the team's top franchises and biggest markets are showcased.

Detroit makes sense on any number of fronts.

They have been a visitor in a Winter Classic game, having played against Chicago at Wrigley Field in 2009, and the NHL has established a pattern where teams play the role of visitors before hosting the event themselves.

That was the case with Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, while Washington, the visitors in last year's rain-drenched Winter Classic at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, has been assured of hosting an outdoor game in the near future.

Detroit is one of the NHL's storied franchises and a massive draw across North America, which would ensure the event would continue to generate big television ratings.

A Winter Classic held there -- either at Comerica Park, where Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch's Detroit Tigers play, or the University of Michigan's Michigan Stadium, known colloquially as The Big House -- would also be a boon to an area whose economy has been hit hard by the recent economic downturn.

"This event, and for people who haven't been here and for markets that haven't hosted it, it's hard to understand just how big this event really is and how much it takes over the town," NHL COO John Collins told ESPN.com in an interview before Saturday's sold-out alumni game at Citizens Bank Park between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers.

The Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates this year's Winter Classic will generate about 3,300 room nights in local hotels and that the city will be in the $22 million to $36 million range that other host cities have reported in terms of economic impact.

In fact, various reports indicated that Philadelphia estimates the economic impact of this year's Winter Classic will far exceed that of last year's event in Pittsburgh, which was conservatively estimated to be worth more than $22 million to the local economy.

"The best (Winter Classic story) was really coming out of Heinz Field last year with (Steelers owner) Art Rooney, who said, 'I think this is the biggest sporting event Pittsburgh's ever hosted.' That's Art, that's not us," Collins said.

He also noted a local newspaper report this week that suggested the Flyers have taken over as the dominant sports franchise in Philadelphia.

"Which is the same thing I heard from some of the guys up in Boston" where the 2010 Winter Classic was held, Collins said. "I remember one of the licensees up in Boston said this is what it used to feel like when the Bruins owned Boston when Bobby Orr was playing, it feels like that again. That's important. And making that resonate nationally I think is where you ultimately want to go."

[+] EnlargeComerica Park
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesCould Comerica Park be seeing the boys of winter in 2013?

If the 2013 Winter Classic does end up as a Motor City Classic, the question of which team will provide the opposition highlights another of the hard choices facing the league moving forward.

It would be natural, for instance, to have a rematch of the '09 game with longtime rival Chicago making the trip to Detroit, although a source told ESPN.com Saturday no discussions have taken place with the Hawks about participating.

But what about the Toronto Maple Leafs? The Leafs will celebrate their centennial in 2017 and are hoping to recognize that historic mark with a number of big NHL events, such as the draft and All-Star Game. They would also like to host an outdoor game. Could a visit to Detroit next Jan. 1 be a precursor to that taking place to mark the centennial with an outdoor game?

The first five Winter Classics have all featured all-American tilts, and Canadian teams have played in two Heritage Classics, the first of which was organized by from the team's end before the lockout, the second of which pitted Montreal at Calgary last year.

The prevailing thinking has been that NBC wouldn't be interested in having a Canadian team on the docket because it would dilute the ratings potential, but Collins said they aren't ruling anything out moving forward.

"From Day One we always talked about this being a celebration of hockey," Collins said. "I think we're getting there to the point where people are less concerned about whether or not their favorite teams are in the game and more just buying into the idea that it's a great day for hockey.

"There's a lot of juice around this event. I think the trick now is how do we keep building this thing into the kind of, I was going to say national but I guess I mean North American event that we think it really could be. I think there's still a lot of room there. I think people in Canada still think, 'It's a U.S.-U.S. game and the Heritage is our game.' And I think in the U.S., a hockey fan looks at the Heritage and says, well that's the Canadian market game," he said.

While the game is important for the host city, the NHL also has to balance the national appeal -- or international appeal given that the Winter Classic is also covered extensively and broadcast in Canada. In short, that means small-market teams that haven't achieved on-ice success that raises their profile around the league will continue to be excluded from the process.

As it should be.

Teams shouldn't be looped into the Winter Classic rotation because it's their turn. They should have to earn their way in. Minnesota, for instance, is believed to be on the radar for a Winter Classic in the near future and the Wild's continued strong play this season and a playoff berth would be beneficial to earning a Winter Classic opportunity.

The Rangers and Flyers game set for Monday, for instance, features teams with a long, often bitter rivalry, and the Flyers were Stanley Cup finalists as recently as 2010.

Detroit, of course, went to back-to-back Stanley Cup finals in 2008 and 2009, winning in '08.

"I think we've been really precise about the market, the venue, the matchup and how we can best promote it," Collins said. "I think that's why we really haven't gone to a bid formula where the best bid wins. That's why we've taken more time to announce the game because it gives us the benefit ... of seeing how the teams get through the Stanley Cup and what storylines emerge."

While virtually every one of the 30 NHL franchises has expressed a desire to host or take part in an outdoor game, there's also the lure of returning at some point to strong hockey markets Chicago, Boston or Calgary.

"So we want to keep this unique and special and yet look at all the markets that would want have this game ... and then you look at all the markets that have had the game and you say, what, we're not going to go back to Boston, we're not going to go back to Chicago, we're not going to go back Buffalo, Edmonton, Calgary? We'll be there in 15 years? So I think that's the balance," Collins said.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.