John Collins has plenty of knowledge when it comes to the National Hockey League’s Winter Classics, since he oversees the entire event as the league’s Chief Operating Officer.
And from everything he knows about the NHL’s four previous outdoor games, he believes Saturday’s game between the Penguins and the Capitals at Heinz Field will be the biggest of them all.
“I think as good as everything else has been coming up to this point, I think this game sets up to potentially be the biggest of them all,” he said in a press conference on Thursday.
There’s a whole slew of reasons for that statement by Collins, who spent 15 years with the National Football League before joining the NHL’s front office in August 2008.
The league began their outdoor games in Canada with the Heritage Classic, played between Edmonton and Montreal at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, Alberta back in 2003.
They returned to the United States five years later with the inaugural Winter Classic at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, N.Y., where Sidney Crosby
scored his famous game-deciding goal in the shootout.
The NHL then switched from a football venue to two historical baseball stadiums – Wrigley Field in Chicago in 2009 and Fenway Park in Boston in January.
So over the years, the NHL has figured out what works and what doesn’t.
“It’s very dynamic, and I think we learn every year,” Collins said. “We add something, we take something out. It just keeps growing.”
While Heinz Field may not have the history of stadiums like Wrigley (built in 1912) and Fenway (built in 1914), that’s irrelevant with the history and tradition of the Steelers organization itself.
“You can’t say enough about the Steelers organization and Art Rooney for allowing this to happen,” Collins said. “The Steelers are a first-class organization that expects to be in the playoffs every year.”
There’s also the community aspect that Pittsburgh has brought to the table.
Collins credited Pengins CEO David Morehouse with ensuring that Pennsylvanians got to partake in a complete celebration of the sport of hockey and the event.
“David felt it was critically important that the Penguins find a way to be able to allow the community to really touch and feel the game,” Collins said. “So they identified and ultimately established a secondary rink.”
This past week, proclaimed by mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Allegheny County executive as “NHL Winter Classic Week” in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, has been a whirlwind for Pittsburghers.
The festivities have been going on since Dec. 24, when the Winter Classic Community Rink at Stage AE opened for outdoor public skating.
And credit has to go to Pittsburghers, who have completely embraced the entire event. They’ve turned out in huge numbers to every event that’s been hosted here in the city, making this Winter Classic an absolute celebration of a sport that doesn’t have as much visibility as football and baseball.
“The (Winter Classic) has really grown,” Collins said. “There’s a lot more interest in it and people like HBO get involved with this because we’re here at Heinz Field, we have the Capitals-Penguins matchup, the rivalry, the marketability of Crosby and (Alex) Ovechkin and because of all the great storylines and the great history that these two teams have had. I think it sets it up really well.”