CHICAGO — Last week the NHL held the Chicago kickoff for the 2014 Coors Light Stadium Series event that will be held at Soldier Field which is the home of the National Football League’s Chicago Bears. The game will pit the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks against the Pittsburgh Penguins on March 1st. Pro Hockey News had the opportunity to talk one-on-one with John Collins, NHL Chief Operating Officer, and talk with him about the concept and reasoning behind the outdoor hockey series.
We started asking him how this all started with the series and Collins mentioned that this season saw the perfect opportunity to do this and build the game, “We saw how big those events were, the Winter Classic and the Heritage Classic events were in those markets. We talked about two things; we talked about wanting to get back to some of the great markets like Chicago and Boston, (and also) Philadelphia where we have already hosted games and that we should get back there more than every 15 or 20 years and we looked at all the other markets where were really thought it would be phenomenal to pull off and if you are only doing one or at most two games a year, you will never get there, or it will take quite a while to get there .“
“So I think this year presented some unique opportunities with the Olympics,” as Collins voiced as a perfect time to market the league during the Winter Olympic break that will be held in Sochi, Russia from February 7 through to the 23. “Obviously we want to come off real strong now that we have a 10 year labor agreement, labor peace, and just focus on growing the game and growing revenues. So that was really the opportunity, you know, that this game in particular I think coming out of Sochi, we want to get both NBC and CBC, they are our partners but are also the Olympic broadcast partners, to give them something to promote during the Olympics and we want to give them something to promote when we once come out of the Olympics and to get the NHL season fired up and back to running.”
As for the teams in the league, “you look at the teams involved in the post – Olympic Winter Classic, sorry Stadium Series and Heritage Classic. Both teams are great rivals, but they are also going to have a number of guys who are going to be involved in the Olympics. There are going to be some terrific story lines in terms of teammates who become opponents who then become teammates again all within a two or three week period. So we think that is pretty cool.”
On the games themselves and the locations, “The games on the front end of the Olympics, with Dodger Stadium (January 25th Anaheim Ducks against the Los Angeles Kings) and Yankee Stadium (will host two games, January 29th featuring the New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils, and then three days later the Rangers return against the New York Islanders) two really iconic venues and I think for those three teams in New York during Super Bowl week are going to be really exciting. Then I think when the game in Dodger Stadium opens up, we hope, will open some new opportunities for us. “
And what will those opportunities be as we talk in sunny, humid, 80 degree weather, “So the biggest question is, how Dan Craig is is going to make ice on a day like today? What Dan has told us is that he is going to be a vampire. He is going to make ice at night and sleep during the day. Frankly we’re not going to expect any issues.”
The elements, what about Mother Nature? Penguins General Manage Ray Shero said that for the two games that his team has played outdoors, he had both rain and snow and are 1-1 in those games. “Yeah, we’ve continued every year we make investments and improve the technology and the ice making abilities. We are going to purchase a second unit and a second rink. So we will have two, one in LA and one in New York and then after those games the system in LA will go to up to Vancouver and the New York system will come to Chicago and that is the way we will do it.”
“Obviously the game this year you don’t want to forget about is the biggest of all of them is the Winter Classic in Detroit with the Winter Festival at Comerica and then obviously the Winter Classic in the Big House with 110,000 people,” as Collins talked about the cornerstone of the outdoor events. Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor is the home field for the NCAA Michigan Wolverines where they can hold in excess of over 115,000 people for a Saturday football game. This won’t be the first hockey game on this surface though; back in 2010 the stadium hosted The Big Chill in the Big House as Michigan faced their interstate rivals Michigan State to a certified record setting crowd of 104,173 for an outdoor game on ice.
We asked Collins if he lost his mind in setting the logistics up for these games and he said he has a great operations crew that has been together since they started with the first game in Buffalo. That group includes Don Renzulli who ran 10 Super Bowls in the NFL before coming over as NHL Executive Vice President of Events so he knows how to throw a party in a football stadium. Add to the list, Dan Craig the Ice Master himself, who can freeze water under any circumstance and even possibly that place down below freeze over that we can’t mention. Collins knows his people and that is why he has a great team, “That is what we talked about with Gary (Bettman), we have a lot of guys here that know how to put on a hockey game.”
John Collins was hired as the NHL’s chief operating office in August of 2008 and is in charge of global business, marketing, sales, broadcast and digital media operations for the league. Before joining the NHL he was the National Football League’s Senior Vice President of Marketing and Sales for 15 years bringing in billions of dollars in revenue from advertising and marketing deals.