The first outdoor NHL game was in 2003 featuring the Edmonton Oilers hosting the Montreal Canadiens. The trend did not catch on as the next outdoor game wasn't until 2008 - the first Winter Classic featuring the Buffalo Sabres hosting the Pittsburgh Penguins. Since then, the league has held a Winter Classic every year, save for the lockout-shortened season, and expanded their outdoor games to include a "Stadium Series." Games have been held in iconic venues such as Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, and Michigan Stadium.
Columbus has never seriously entered the conversation as a market to host one of these outdoor games. The excuses have been easy to point to - not a very good team, not enough fan support, no true rival, and even difficulty securing an outdoor location (more on that in a bit). Blue Jackets fans have largely accepted that they would have to remain patient before joining in the fun of seeing their team play at Ohio Stadium or perhaps even
Crew Mapfre Stadium.
Quietly, it is my belief that many of these excuses have become outdated and no longer hold water when discussing which cities should host these prestigious events. The league is close to having half of the NHL franchises playing host to an outdoor game after this upcoming year. Remaining teams still waiting to be chosen are in tough locales - Arizona, Dallas, Tampa Bay, Florida - and/or smaller markets - Columbus, Nashville, Carolina. Here are a few reasons why Columbus could very well be chosen in the near future, and why that is more realistic than ever before.
There are few places in North American sports more iconic than Ohio Stadium. It helps that Ohio State's home field is just up the road from Nationwide Arena and could host over 100,000 fans for an outdoor hockey game. We know Ohioans like to outdo their rivals to the north, and they could threaten Michigan fans for the attendance record for an outdoor hockey game (105,491 when the Red Wings and Maple Leafs played on New Year's Day a couple season ago).
Beyond the "Duh, it's Ohio Stadium" reasoning, there are several factors that have changed in regards to the venue. Prior to 2014, any outdoor game was virtually guaranteed to be in a cold location. The Columbus Dispatch discussed how weather used to be an issue when considering Columbus, but it really shouldn't be any more. The only issue is that it very well could be 50 degrees and raining in January in Columbus, but the weather should not deter the league from choosing Columbus as we have seen games in San Francisco and Los Angeles the last couple of years.
Another factor in venue would be getting Ohio State on board to let the NHL/Blue Jackets take over the stadium to host the game. There has been friction in the past between OSU and the Blue Jackets, but as you can read in the linked article above, the University actually took over day-to-day operations of Nationwide Arena in 2010. Then, in 2012 as part of the sale of Nationwide Arena, the Blue Jackets and Ohio State joined with Nationwide Insurance and the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority (FCCFA) to form Columbus Arena Management (CMA). This group operates both Nationwide Arena and Value City Arena and approves budgets for both facilities.
Ryan Johansen, perhaps unaware of the perceived tension between the two groups, tried to appeal to both Buckeyes and Blue Jackets fans during the Skills Competition during All-Star Weekend. Though both organizations would like to claim "top dog" status in the city (one has history by over 100 years, one is a professional sports team), hopefully relations are smoothing over between the two. Blue Jackets players, at least, seemed to enjoy living so close to the home of college football's national champion.
Finally, the third and perhaps most important aspect of the venue is that Ohio State seems to be opening up the stadium to outside parties. Ohio Stadium hosted Pink Floyd in 1988, a handful of others in the 1990's, and then had one last concert in 2003 before shutting down that aspect for the last 12 years. That has changed, as the Rolling Stones recently rocked The Shoe and there is more on the way - Buckeye Country Superfest will take over the stadium for two days later this month and One Direction is set to play in August.
Not only are bands rocking the stage along the Olentangy, but an NFL, yes an NFL team will be making an appearance as the Browns will play their Orange & Brown scrimmage in Columbus in August. So while Ohio Stadium used to be exclusive to Ohio State events - football, lacrosse, graduation - it makes sense that the nearly-century old venue is picking up revenue from other areas. Gene Smith recently discussed the cost to maintain the facility in an interview with Eleven Warriors and said that it did not make sense to have an asset sitting empty but for ten to twelve days a year. The stadium is mostly inactive in the winter, so an outdoor game there would be a nice revenue opportunity for the University in an off-peak time.
Fan Appeal / League Recognition
A common argument against the Blue Jackets (and Columbus) since their inception has been that they don't have a large enough fan base and would not support these large scale events. Well, as recently as this past winter Gary Bettman said the league is aware of a potential game at Ohio Stadium and they have discussed it internally. That is a step in the right direction. There are several other factors in play as well.
Columbus has drawn rave reviews after hosting the NHL Draft in 2007 followed up by last season's All-Star Game. Maybe it is a "hidden gem," but more players, writers, and fans are taking notice of what Columbus has to offer. There's no reason for the franchise or city to back down from the national stage.
The team is also on an upward trajectory (man-games lost aside) which should help combat the "They're not good, actually" theory. It helps to have emerging stars on the team who are becoming more recognizable in the hockey world. All of this adds up to positives when trying to appeal to the league to host an outdoor game.
As I mentioned before, there are very few franchises left that haven't hosted some type of outdoor game. It is very clear that the league is trying to spread these out to new cities each year. That has to play in the favor of Columbus.
Not only is Ohio Stadium an iconic stadium in North America, but there is ample space for parking and tailgating. As the AHL affiliation with the Lake Erie Monsters kicks in, this event could appeal to all of Ohio. Columbus is centrally located in the Buckeye state, which is home to nearly 12 million people, and is easily accessible via highways and the CMH airport.
If you believe that Ohio fans alone wouldn't fill the 100,000+ seats, just look at all the nearby franchises - Pittsburgh, Detroit, Buffalo, Chicago, Toronto. These teams have large followings just hours away from Columbus. So if the worry is that there aren't enough Blue Jackets fans, travel would not be too difficult (weather permitting) for several different fanbases. Rivalries are blossoming with both the Penguins and Rangers, and the old Ohio/Michigan rivalry with the Red Wings still exists.
The Cannon. Outdoors. Seriously. How can you pass that up, NHL??
The future of these outdoor games seems to be heading in the direction of expanding to new cities each year. The Stadium Series has featured some of the most iconic stadiums North America has to offer. Add to those facts that Ohio State seems to have loosened up on opening up its door to Ohio Stadium, and Columbus seems poised to finally land an outdoor game from the NHL. Stay tuned in a few months when the NHL selects venues for outdoor games in 2017.