How weather factors into Winter Classic plans

Workers are installing the ice rink at Citizens Bank Park as NHL officials keep an eye on the weather forecast.
Workers are installing the ice rink at Citizens Bank Park as NHL officials keep an eye on the weather forecast. (YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: December 23, 2011

IT WILL BE 50 degrees and rainy today in Philadelphia. In 10 days, a hockey game will be played outdoors in Citizens Bank Park. The temperature right now is unseasonably warm, although this is the risk the NHL was willing to take when it agreed to play the annual Winter Classic in Philadelphia, the southern-most city that has hosted the event.

This will be the fifth incarnation of the Winter Classic, with the first four being played in Buffalo, Chicago, Boston and Pittsburgh. The NHL has experienced different weather patterns for the event, and the game needed to be moved to the evening in Pittsburgh last season, when it was rainy and in the low 50s during the afternoon.

"We were guaranteed snow as part of the contract," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman joked when asked how Philadelphia was selected to be the site this year. When the game was first announced, Phillies president David Montgomery joked that Bettman and Flyers chairman Ed Snider put the pressure on Montgomery to deliver snow. And though the comments were made in jest, the unpredictability of the weather is one of the factors the NHL must consider when determining what market will host the game. The NHL needs decent working conditions for the players and aesthetically pleasing conditions for the fans and television for a successful event.

"You can't ensure that you're going to have decent enough working conditions, but if the conditions aren't decent enough, then we're going to have to adjust around it," Bettman said. "This goes to show why this is kind of a reality show. We have our own meteorologist on site, and we're going to have to make some judgments if weather becomes a factor."

John Collins, the NHL's chief marketing officer, said the unpredictability of the weather is "part of the charm" of the outdoor event. Don Renzulli, the NHL's senior vice president of events, works with the meteorologists, who said forecasts indicate the temperature will be around 50 degrees on Jan. 2, but they're not yet expecting precipitation during the game. He said he's constantly checking weather, and the past 4 years has prepared the NHL for different scenarios.

"We have an ice guy who's the best in the business, so we can maintain what we need to do as it gets warm," Renzulli said. "The critical issues are sun and rain, but he's found a way to jerry-rig a Zamboni to suck the water up instead of put the water down. We pulled 3,500 gallons up last year."

Still, all 30 NHL clubs are interested in the Winter Classic. For the NHL, the challenge is to figure out which market receives the event. Collins said the NHL first looks for a matchup that will captivate attention.

"What's interesting is the NHL does not bid out the event, like the Super Bowl bid or an NCAA college basketball bid," said Comcast-Spectacor president Peter Luukko. "They really choose the cities, although obviously we made it clear, like other teams have, that we would like to host the game."

Luukko emphasized that in addition to drawing strong in-market television ratings, the Flyers are also a popular out-of-market team. Combine that with the popularity of the New York Rangers, and the matchup seemed ideal for both the local fans and the national audience.

After looking at matchups, the league checks into possible host markets and host facilities. This year included the challenge of the NFL lockout, adding a degree of uncertainty about the vacancy of football facilities.

The NHL needs more than a week to prepare the facility. Last season, the league worked with the NFL and the Steelers, who did not want to surrender late-season home games. The compromise was Pittsburgh hosted a Thursday night game in Week 16, and the NHL started preparing Heinz Field after the game.

In Philadelphia this season, the NHL did not know how the NFL's lockout would affect the schedule when the Winter Classic was in the planning stages. That prompted the NHL to focus on Citizens Bank Park instead of Lincoln Financial Field, which is hosting a Week 17 game the day before the Winter Classic.

"We didn't know if the schedule was going to change," Bettman said. "We need, obviously, predictability."

It helped that the Flyers and Phillies have a strong relationship, and that both the Wells Fargo Center and Citizens Bank Park are operated by Global Spectrum, a Comcast-Spectacor subsidiary that manages facilities worldwide. Flyers chairman Ed Snider, a powerful figure in the NHL, founded Spectacor.

"I think certainly our relationship with the Phillies helped, because the NHL felt comfortable that the facility itself would run well," Luukko said. "The NFL basically took itself out of the site because of the scheduling issues, so that basically took care of itself. And I do believe it is very attractive to have the use of the baseball stadium for an extended period of time."

NHL executives do not have a sweeping preference about a football facility or baseball facility, instead looking at each on a case-by-case basis. A football stadium is more symmetrical and offers more seats, although a ballpark is more intimate and readily available during the winter. Luukko said the challenge teams face is ensuring that all their season ticketholders have access to tickets, because the game counts as a home game for a team.

During the preparation process, Luukko realized the allure of the other events in addition to the Winter Classic. Whether it's the alumni game, American Hockey League game, high school game or college games, Luukko said there are 10 days of desirable hockey in addition to the featured event.

"I would have thought you had a shot of selling the Alumni game, maybe doing 25-30,000 for the American league game - I would never think that would sell out also," Luukko said. "I think we learned that Philadelphia is more than a Flyers town. It's very much a hockey town."

The NHL already has an operation team on site preparing Citizens Bank Park for the Winter Classic, which would not have been feasible at Lincoln Financial Field with the Eagles' schedule organized how it is.

"That's pretty cool, especially in this city, because these Flyers fans, they are die-hard," Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins said on the day he re-signed with the team. "For them to be treated to an outdoor game, the way hockey was when they were kids when they were growing up, having the wind blowing and having these unpredictable conditions - the snow falling that day - it'll be a lot of fun."

There was speculation that a Winter Classic matchup could be hosted at Beaver Stadium in State College between the Flyers and Penguins. In 2007, Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said he would like to see an annual game between Pennsylvania's two teams at Beaver Stadium. Then-coach John Stevens called it "an ideal situation."

"It's a great question, and in the course of discussions, probably every conceivable option has been raised, discussed, sometimes for 2 seconds and sometimes for 20 seconds and sometimes there's more legs to it," Bettman said when asked if the Penn State scenario was considered. "But I think, at least for the time being, because of . . . what it does for the market, we're going to stay pretty much close to the team markets. Instead of being absolutely in the middle of nowhere, it doesn't make sense. Being in a place in neither Pittsburgh or Philly doesn't make a whole lot of sense."

Then, Bettman added "at this point," acknowledging that the event could evolve as more of a foundation is built. Philadelphia is the fifth market hosting the game, a market that embraces hockey. The next test would seem to be whether non-traditional hockey markets could draw interest - although most non-traditional markets don't feature the winter weather conducive to the event. Bill Daly, the NHL's deputy commissioner, said there's not a fear of putting the game in a non-traditional hockey market. However, there are traditional hockey cities able to host a game before the NHL ventures elsewhere.

"There are so many great hockey markets that are just big markets that still want to get to the game, that are great venues to host the game, that I think we have a long list to go," Collins said.

Philadelphia now can be checked off the list. Luukko is not too worried about the temperature. He only sounded worried about steady rain, although last year's experience in Pittsburgh showed the game still could be played with rain. If the event continues without a problem, it will be an example that the Winter Classic might continue creeping into cities where winter weather is inconsistent and more unpredictable.

"There's always some curveballs thrown at you that you think you got, and then you got to adapt on site," Renzulli said. "But I think we've come a long way in 5 years."

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