PHILADELPHIA - The Toronto Maple Leafs have been left out in the cold when it comes to the NHL's outdoor games.
It's time to change that.
Whether it's as part of an all-Canadian matchup -- how about the Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens at Rogers Centre, now that Rogers is a part-owner of the Leafs? -- or a cross-border clash that might add some heat to the Winter Classic format, it's time for the Leafs and their millions of fans to be in the mix for the annual game.
"We would love to host a game and the league knows it," Leafs general manager and president Brian Burke told QMI Agency Tuesday.
The Classic may have reached the point where it's possible to have an American-Canadian matchup. The thinking before this year's game, Jan., 2, was it had to feature two U.S. teams to get the maximum out of the potential television ratings for NBC. But now, with a 10-year deal in the bag, maybe some of the pressure has been taken off in that regard amid interest in growing the Winter Classic on a bigger scale. It also would be good for the league's Canadian broadcast partners.
The idea of a Leafs-Detroit Red Wings game has been discussed. Wings owner Mike Ilitch also owns the Detroit Tigers and Comerica Park, so there probably would be pressure to have the game there. The hype around the event downtown might help Ilitch's campaign for a new rink to replace the aging Joe Louis Arena.
But the prospect of a game at the University of Michigan's stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich., which would have a shot at setting the attendance mark for the Winter Classic, is really intriguing.
There's no question its proximity to southern Ontario and millions of Leafs fans would guarantee the event's success.
"There are rumours about us in a game with Detroit, but we have not been formally invited," Burke said. "If asked, we would always accommodate a league request. We would be honoured to participate."
There has been some pressure growing for the Winter Classic to be moved westward, but there are still some interesting possibilities in the East, such as the Detroit scenario. It's believed Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has been told his team will get a chance to be host of a game within the next couple of years.
"My guess is it will be played in a place we have not been before," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said when asked about next year's game. "The answer is you can eliminate some of the warmer climates. We are probably not going back to where we have been. So that's all you get from me today."
Bettman said it's unlikely more outdoor games will be added to the schedule though the success of all the games to date ($40 for a tuque?) have clubs clamouring to be part of the mix.
"There are a number of clubs who say, 'I want this and, even if I've hosted it, I don't want to wait 10 years to get it back. So let's do more and more and more.' Other people say this has become a special event, because it's special, it's unique and that's something over time we are going to have to wrestle with," he said. "But I don't think we are going to change the format in the short term."
As for Canada, the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames have been hosts of the Heritage Classic, so it would make sense to come East in Canada for the next one, whenever that is.
A Leafs-Canadiens game at Rogers Centre is a matchup fans on both sides would love.
FIVE SITES FOR A WINTER CLASSIC
1. Toronto. The Maple Leafs are in the NHL's biggest hockey market and a game with the Montreal Canadiens would capitalize on one of the game's great rivalries.
2. Detroit. As one of the league's marquee teams with a national following, a game against the Leafs (the only remaining Original Six team not to have played outdoors) would be a big draw.
3. Washington. There was a time when this would have been a slam dunk, but with the Caps and Alex Ovechkin slipping it has lost a bit of its sizzle.
4. Colorado. Since this is a made-for-TV event, the Rocky Mountains would make for a stunning backdrop in Denver. The Avs have fallen in the standings, but there's still a little spark in their rivalry with the Wings.
5. Vancouver. With ice-making technology the way it is and a new, retractable roof on BC Place Stadium, a Canucks-Leafs or Canucks-Blackhawks game has potential.