WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Washington Capitals majority owner Ted Leonsis' quest to host the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic began five minutes into the inaugural game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres in 2008.
Gathered on the couch with his family, Leonsis was enthralled by the spectacle and grandeur at Ralph Wilson Stadium, so much so he fired off a quick email.
"I started emailing [NHL Commissioner] Gary Bettman saying, 'This is magnificent. This is like one of the greatest media sporting events I've seen and I would love for us to be considered one day,'" Leonsis told NHL.com.
The Capitals served as visitors for the 2011 game against the Penguins at Heinz Field, where 30,000 red-clad Washington fans descended upon Western Pennsylvania to watch their favorite team skate off with a 3-1 victory. That game only served to motivate Leonsis even more to host the annual event in the nation's capital.
Five minutes into the inaugural Winter Classic between the Penguins and Sabres in 2008, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis wanted to bring that type of spectacle to Washington, D.C. (Photo: Washington Capitals)
Bettman assured Leonsis following the 2011 game that the Winter Classic would eventually come to Washington, D.C., something Leonsis reminded the Commissioner of this offseason. Saturday, Leonsis' patience was rewarded when he formally announced at the team's preseason convention that the Capitals will host the Winter Classic on Jan. 1, 2015.
"It's always been the Winter Classic," Capitals general manager George McPhee said. "Ted did a really good job saying, 'This is Pittsburgh's second [outdoor game], what about us?' The whole point was to get the Winter Classic here and he did."
Announcing the game more than 15 months in advance is a first for the League. But according to NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins, that extra time will allow those involved in preparing the Winter Classic to construct the best possible atmosphere in Washington.
"Doing something in Washington is just exciting," Collins said. "This is not like coming down and pop a rink up and have a game. It's 'What can we do in D.C. to really highlight the game?'"
Where the game will take place is undecided. Collins said Saturday the League will begin surveying potential venues within the next month. He specifically mentioned Nationals Park and RFK Stadium, each located in Southeast Washington, and FedEx Field in nearby Landover, Md. M&T Bank Stadium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore also were mentioned.
Constructing a makeshift stadium on the National Mall has been a popular suggestion, but though it would certainly be picturesque, it isn't considered logistically feasible.
The League will take cues from the Capitals on prioritizing where to host the game. Leonsis would prefer to play it within District lines.
"We've said to them that we don't think we need to not be in the District in order to sell more tickets," Leonsis told NHL.com. "I don’t believe we need to do that. And I think our city deserves it."
As for the opponent, that also is undetermined and will not be announced until a later date. But Collins said the plan is to have all details ironed out by next April at the latest. Previous Winter Classics have highlighted long-standing rivalries, featuring Original Six matchups like the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks in 2009 and heated division rivalries like the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers in 2012.
For the time being, simply realizing this dream is enough to satisfy Leonsis, who hopes that the 2015 Winter Classic will provide him and the Capitals with another captivating memory.
"I wanted a Winter Classic," Leonsis said. "I worked real hard on anything the League asked me to do and I said, 'I think it's really important to have all eyes on Washington, D.C.' I think we can show the League and show the world that this is a great hockey town."