August 10, 2020

Winter Classic: Leonsis calls 2015 game “the best Winter Classic”

For the host team, sometimes a Winter Classic win feels like more than two points, but you can hardly fault them. The hockey world was watching, and the Capitals delivered. Troy Brouwer scored the game-winner for the Washington Capitals against his former team, the Chicago Blackhawks, with seconds remaining in regulation. The Capitals won 3-2, and it was as thrilling a finish as you’d expect from an event like the Winter Classic. It was made for the big time.

After Washington’s victory, Washington Capitals majority owner Ted Leonsis cautioned, as if to remind himself, “I don’t want to make this more than it is.”

The Winter Classic has been the NHL’s marquee event since 2008, and Leonsis had been gunning for one of his own ever since his Capitals visited the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2011.

In the end, the game is still worth two points, but Leonsis hopes it is a signal of future successes for the franchise he’s devoted so much to over the years.

“I mean, I’m hoping that we can continue to be a franchise that can accomplish bigger things that winning the Winter Classic.”

For Leonsis, it wasn’t only about the spectacle, it was about the experience. His deep investment in the event and its execution added an emotional factor to the day.

“I knew that our fans would fill the stands, be a sea of red,” said Leonsis. “I knew that the NHL really has their execution of this event down. And we were good hosts. We spent a lot of time – I personally spent a lot of time – walking around the building. I saw all the care over every detail.”

Leading up to the event, some felt that there wasn’t a lot of buzz or excitement surrounding the Chicago – Washington matchup, since both teams have played in multiple outdoor games, and neither are conference rivals. So while the game was worth as much as any other regular season contest, it didn’t possess the spark that typically accompanies matchups between divisional and conference rivals.

Despite doubts, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman wouldn’t have allowed Washington as the host of the game if he didn’t believe it would succeed.

“The fact of the matter is, we wouldn’t have brought the Winter Classic here, despite Ted’s persistence, if we didn’t think it was right,” Bettman told reporters after the game. “It’s Ted’s persistence, not just in pursuing this event, but in making the Caps such an important part of the sports scene in Washington.”

“It’s Ted’s pursuit and persistence — in making the Capitals such an important part of the community – that brought us to the point that we believed that by bringing the Winter Classic to Washington we could have a great event and that’s what we had.”

Leonsis felt the league’s faith in his franchise was rewarded. “It does feel good to have the league believe in us, and I think this was the best Winter Classic.”

“If you look at the quality of the game, the speed of the game, the quality of the ice … I think the weather was absolutely perfect. And to win at the buzzer basically, it makes for great theater, great drama.”

Besides his team winning the game, Leonsis cherished a moment he witnessed before the fanfare of the day began.

“I was walking to do an interview this morning, and there was a mother and daughter, and they had their arms around each other, and they just had the biggest smiles on their faces. I just stopped, and I looked at them,” said Leonsis. “One of the ladies blew me a kiss. I mean, those are the kind of moments you want to capture. You want to make lifelong memories.”

 

Winter Classic: Commissioner Gary Bettman’s media availability

Posted in it’s entirety, for your amazement and enjoyment. [courtesy NHL Media Relations]

COMMISSIONER BETTMAN:  Good afternoon, everyone.  Happy New Year.  We’re delighted that you were able to join us here today.  What a spectacular afternoon we had here at Nationals Park.

I want to first start by thanking the Nationals organization, especially Mark Lerner, for welcoming us into their home and letting us dress it up and turn it into a hockey venue for the day. I also want to thank the Blackhawks for participating and being so cooperative.  Obviously, the players and from Rocky Wirtz on down, the Caps’ Ted Leonsis, what can you say?

What you saw here today from 43,000 people was a level of enthusiasm for hockey, for the Capitals, that I’m not sure many people imagined could ever have been accomplished here in Washington.  And it’s a testament to Ted Leonsis and his passion for the game, his passion for the Capitals, and his passion for this community.

He insisted, he was persistent, he was relentless in pursuit of this game and it was because he wanted it for Washington DC. The atmosphere couldn’t have been greater.  The weather was spectacular.  I have to congratulate my own special events people for the way they dressed up this park.  I mean, the replica Capitol Building, the reflecting pool, actually somebody showed me a picture of somebody skating on the reflecting pool in 1918 to give you a sense of how far these things go back here.  But it made for a fun day.

A lot of people were probably out late last night, but that didn’t stop tens of thousands of people from being in spectator plaza and tailgating at nine o’clock in the morning. All in all it’s been a fun day.  We had a competitive, entertaining game, and so I just want to again thank everyone, but most importantly the players, for participating and enjoying the experience, and all the great fans who turned out.

Each of these games — I know they get compared one outdoor game to another: they’re all unique, they’re all different, they’re all special in their own way.  And that’s the way we like to try and do it. And I don’t know what people’s expectations were for our event here today, but the Winter Classic here in Washington couldn’t have been better from a fan experience and an entertainment standpoint. And on that note, I’m happy to take questions

Q.  Ted said that he thought that part of the reason they got the Winter Classic was just so that you wanted him to leave you alone.  Can you talk about his efforts over the years and what you were looking for?

COMMISSIONER BETTMAN:  The fact of the matter is, we wouldn’t have brought the Winter Classic here, despite Ted’s persistence, if we didn’t think it was right.  It’s Ted’s persistence, not just in pursuing this event, but in making the Caps such an important part of the sports scene in Washington. It’s Ted’s pursuit and persistence — in making the Capitals such an important part of the community – that brought us to the point that we believed that by bringing the Winter Classic to Washington we could have a great event and that’s what we had.

So, yes, it’s his persistence, but it wasn’t just in harassing me — and it’s not harassing, because Ted’s a great owner and his passion is phenomenal — but the point is, it’s everything he does about the way he conducts this organization, that enabled us to be more than comfortable that we could successfully bring the Winter Classic to Washington.

Q.  You said every game is unique.  What was memorable about this particular Winter Classic?  I know it’s only like a half hour after, but.

COMMISSIONER BETTMAN:  Well, we’ll take a deep breath.  Putting aside for a minute that we had a very competitive, entertaining game, just when you came in here and you saw the way we took a modern venue, and, because it was modern, we could dress it.  And the Capitol Building, the reflecting pool, the military presence, the entertainment between periods, these were all things that created a fun environment for our fans. Again, this is an event that takes the game back to its roots. So many people learn to skate and play hockey outdoors, as young kids, and it conjures up memories of that.

When you look at something that was focused on being in the U.S. nation’s capital and you look at the way Don Renzulli dressed up his events people dressed up the building, it gave it that special feeling. By the way, in addition to thanking Don, and special events people, I would be remiss if I didn’t also thank Dan Craig, the world’s expert in making ice under any circumstances and conditions.  And Colie Campbell who runs hockey operations.

We had some decisions that we had to make before the game, including when to start the game, and it was a fully coordinated effort. And we had the cooperation of the Players’ Association in these endeavors, which is always a good thing as well.

Q.  Can you talk about before the game during warm ups about starting on time versus delaying it?

COMMISSIONER BETTMAN: We decided that we would have the players come out and warm up and see how comfortable they were with the sun conditions.  The ice was fine; that was never an issue.

The report we got back from Corey Crawford, the goaltender who was in the sun for Chicago, that he was comfortable, and the two captains told us that they were comfortable and we decided to switch ends — just to make sure that nobody had any issues about fairness at the 10-minute mark.  It worked out perfectly well.  It was a non-issue.

For us, the primary issue, if there was to be an issue, was player safety.  Once we were comfortable that that wasn’t going to be an issue, everyone decided — I decided it was time to go and play on time.

NHL trying to put Olympics on ice

On Saturday morning, fans across America celebrated an absolutely incredible Olympic shootout win over Russia. People across the country woke up early and were rewarded with an amazing game that somehow lived up to all of the hype. Americans cheered and tweeted all day about USA’s incredible victory.

Meanwhile NHL commissioner Gary Bettman sat in his ivory tower, arms crossed, watching disapprovingly as his sport took center stage and NHL players did their sport proud.

Ok, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but Saturday’s game shows the absurdity of the NHL’s desire to pull its players from future Olympic participation.

Both Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly have expressed the owner’s desire to keep the players out of future Olympic tournaments and the league does have valid concerns. Fans may have had the opportunity to watch Saturday’s game because it landed on the weekend, but except for the few times the Olympics are held in North America, the foreign schedule is not conducive for a large TV audience.

It doesn’t matter how great the games are if no one is watching.

Olympic participation also means a two-to-three week break in the NHL season. That stops the league’s momentum at a time when it is no longer competing with the NFL for an audience. It is hard to bring fans back after such a long break.

There is also the obvious injury concern as players can injure themselves playing in what essentially amount to exhibition games in the NHL’s eyes.

Is it worth risking the health of the league’s best players and the fans’ patience for a tournament that most people won’t even be able to watch?

Given where the next Olympics will be held and how long it took for the NHL to approve player participation in Sochi, there will likely be a real fight for the players to represent their national teams in four years.

When the NHL first hinted its displeasure with the Olympics, Alex Ovechkin made it clear he was going to Sochi regardless, saying he would go even if the season did not pause for an Olympic break. The 2018 Olympics will be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. It is doubtful he will make same threat then.

The real fight for the future of NHL Olympic participation is going to be for Pyeongchang. With so many Canadian stars, the NHL would have had a hard time keeping the players out of Vancouver four years ago and the same goes for Sochi.

There aren’t any South Korean superstars in the NHL. While representing one’s country is always important, Pyeongchang just will not carry the same importance as either Vancouver or Sochi.

That doesn’t mean, however, that players won’t fight to play in the Olympics. Despite what the NHL may think, ending their Olympics participation would be bad for the sport and for business.

The NHL season grinds to a halt every year already for an All-Star event that many fans really do not care about. Though the All-Star break is not as long as the Olympic break, there is no question that Olympic hockey generates more interest among fans than the All-Star game.

The NHL is also underestimating the world-wide importance of the Olympics to European players. As the KHL continues to rise in prominence and popularity, it is foolish for the NHL to deny players the chance to represent their native countries.

Alex Ovechkin is one of the faces of the Sochi Olympics because that’s how important this hockey tournament is. Eventually, the Winter Olympics will return to Europe and every European player in the league will want to represent their countries in front of their friends and families.

With the ‘defection’ of superstar Ilya Kovalchuk back to Russia and the KHL, is it really smart to give the KHL another major advantage in terms of convincing European players to stay?

How about an example that hits closer to home for Caps fans. Evgeny Kuznetsov appears to finally be ready to make his NHL debut after the conclusion of the KHL season. As he watches the Sochi Olympics, you can bet there are people in his ear telling him he may never represent Russia in the Olympics if the NHL has its way.

For many players trying to decide between the NHL and KHL, the Olympics could tip the balance just a little more towards the KHL.

The NHL of course isn’t saying that players can’t represent their countries. “I’m very much a believer in the World Cup,” said Bettman during a Q&A with TSN’s Gord Miller. “I think they’re great. Doing it at a time of year in places that we can control makes a whole lot more sense for us in terms of what we try to accomplish as the NHL. And we think it’s good for international hockey as well.”

But while a world cup may solve the problem for the NHL, the NHL seems to be assuming other leagues would follow suite. Why would the KHL throw its support behind the NHL’s Olympic alternative? Any NHL-backed tournament would likely be held more frequently in North America in order to benefit the NHL’s audience.

So here’s the choice the KHL faces. They can continue to allow their players to play in an already established, popular tournament that all their players want to play in and watch as the NHL withdraws its players allowing the European teams to dominate. They can then use Olympic participation as a recruiting tool for all players considering leaving for the NHL.

Or the KHL could help the NHL with its World Cup idea that would be organized in a way that best suits the NHL.

Hmm, where’s the benefit for the KHL?

The NHL is squaring itself up for a fight with its players that will benefit a major competitor in the KHL. It’s hard to take the NHL seriously as they cite player safety when international hockey is played on a wider rink and does not allow fighting. This is strictly a business decision and it is the wrong one.

The benefits of Olympic participation, though limited, are clear in the wake of such great hockey like fans were treated to on Saturday. Abandoning the Olympics for a World Cup the rest of the world has little reason to care about is just bad business.

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