The NHL is putting its marquee event back on the gridiron and its two biggest stars on the grand stage.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced Friday that the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic will feature Sidney Crosby
and the Pittsburgh Penguins
against Alex Ovechkin
and the Washington Capitals
at Heinz Field, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers, on New Year's Day.
After two years of hosting the outdoor event in iconic baseball stadiums, the League will go back to a National Football League venue for the first time since the inaugural Winter Classic was played at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo on Jan. 1, 2008.
Fans can register to receive all updates regarding the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh on NHL.com.
Bettman didn't stop with just the Winter Classic. He also announced that the League is planning to revive the Heritage Classic on Feb. 20, with the Calgary Flames
hosting the Montreal Canadiens
at McMahon Stadium, home of the CFL's Calgary Stampeders.
The Heritage Classic game between the host Edmonton Oilers
and Montreal Canadiens
on Nov. 22, 2003 at frigid Commonwealth Stadium was the NHL's first official outdoor game. Bettman said the only thing standing in the way of its revival is approval from the League's Competition Committee, which he believes to be a mere formality at this point.
"Consider this a soft, unofficial announcement because we still need signoff from the competition committee, though it's my hope and expectation that that won't be an issue," Bettman said.
Bridgestone recently signed a five-year deal with the NHL to be the sponsor for the Winter Classic, and Bettman announced that the Capitals will host the Winter Classic in D.C. within the next two to three years.
"In doing our due diligence for this game, we could not help but be impressed by the fan interest and the possibilities in Washington D.C., so our plan is to do an outdoor game in Washington in the next two to three years," he said. "We think that will be an excellent venue opportunity, market and fan base for us to connect to with this event as well."
The Capitals also announced that every one of their full-season account holders will have the opportunity to purchase tickets to the 2011 Winter Classic.
"We are excited to participate not only in the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, but also are pleased that the NHL has agreed to play a future outdoor game in the D.C. area," Capitals majority owner Ted Leonsis said in a statement. "It recognizes and rewards our fans and franchise for our many achievements on and off the ice."
The Steelers host the Carolina Panthers in a prime-time game on Dec. 23; the NHL cannot take over the field until after that's complete.
NHL Facilities Operations Manager Dan Craig told NHL.com his ice crew will arrive in Pittsburgh on the 22nd and is planning to work around the clock for at least four days once the Steelers and Panthers leave the field.
"The crew has to be rested and ready to go around 11:30 that night," Craig said. "Then we'll start and it'll be round the clock for four days minimum, but I'm anticipating five days. It'll be much like we did in Buffalo. We'll build the ice and have it ready for the team skates on the 31st and then the game on the 1st."
Craig couldn't report on the logistics for the Heritage Classic because they are still being ironed out. Bettman would not confirm that it will turn into an annual event like the Winter Classic, but clearly that's the goal.
Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau
expressed his excitement for the upcoming Winter Classic during a conference call with reporters late Friday afternoon.
"Every year when you watch (the Winter Classic) you wish you where there. It looks like such a happening," Boudreau said. "I can't imagine 65,000 fans at a hockey game, and I don't think the players can imagine it -- they'll be so excited with the experience."
Bettman unhappy with IIHF --
Bettman expressed his disappointment with the International Ice Hockey Federation on Friday because of an article posted on its web-site during the recently completed World Championship.
The article, written by IIHF Communications Director Szymon Szemberg, specifically called out Sidney Crosby
and other NHL players who declined to take part in the tournament once their teams were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Szemberg wrote that players who decided not to participate in the tournament had turned "their backs not only on the team and its fans but also to the system which developed them and made them rich and famous."
"If you remember the debate that (IIHF President) Rene Fasel and I had at my media availability in Vancouver (during the Olympics), one of the things I said is I don't believe the IIHF respects our game, our players, our business or our schedule," Bettman said. "What was said by the IIHF during the World Championships was exactly that. As soon as I saw the article I put a call into Rene Fasel and I told him what he said was inappropriate, out of line and simply wrong and he needed to make a public apology, which he did.
"I'm not happy with the way the IIHF somehow feels it has an entitlement to these great athletes who risk their careers and put themselves out of their own time without anything but love of country to be belittled by the IIHF."
A reporter than pointed out to Bettman that the NHL's "hammer" in this entire controversy is that it can pull the players out of international competition.
"That is a joint decision with the Players' Association, as is the Olympics," Bettman responded. "And at some point when we're engaged on real substantive issues with the Players' Association, I am certain that will be on the list of things we talk about.
"Nobody should write the headline that we're dropping out of the World Championships," he added, "but the fact is, as you were and a lot of our players were, I was offended that the IIHF was belittling our players and our game."
The story has since been pulled off the IIHF's website.
Coyotes stable --
Bettman said that the Phoenix Coyotes
are stable in Glendale right now and the city is negotiating on building arrangement for Jobing.com Arena with three prospective buyers for the franchise. Bettman hopes that will be finalized in a few days or weeks and that the franchise will be sold this summer.
"That is my hope. That is my expectation," Bettman said.
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl