Maple Leafs: Why the NHL Should Not Doubt a Canadian Winter Classic


After NBC expressed concern over potential poor ratings with the Toronto Maple Leafs hosting the 2017 Winter Classic, we look at why they should not have any doubts about the inclusion of a Canadian Team.

When the Toronto Maple Leafs played against the Detroit Red Wings at Michigan Stadium in 2014, they set a record for the largest crowd at an outdoor NHL game. In total, 105,491 people were in attendance at the “Big House”.

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Not only was that Winter Classic host to the biggest ever crowd, but it was also the most watched regular season game. By combining the TV viewership of CBC and NBC, 8.234 million people watched the game, an increase of 19 percent from the 2012 Winter Classic.

Compare those figures to the 2016 Winter Classic, which was not as successful as the NHL and NBC had wanted in the United States. Only 2.775 million viewers tuned in on NBC, which was down 20 percent from last year’s game, and 40 percent from the 2014 Winter Classic.

Greg Wyshynski from Yahoo Sports looked at five factors that affected the ratings for the Winter Classic, and why it did not work for NBC.  These included the fact NBC does not receive viewership from Canada, where the game was played and competing against College Bowl games.

NBC President of Programming, Jon Miller pointed towards similar factors but also included this note as well:

"“When it’s two U.S. cities, that makes up for 20-25 percent of your rating. If you lose one of those markets, you lose 12-15 percent of your ratings. That’s not insignificant,” said Miller.“We do talk to them about the matchups. They came to us and said they want to do Montreal vs. Boston, and we supported it. It’s a great rivalry,” said Miller. “That being said, when you have a game in a Canadian market, it means you don’t have two U.S. markets, and that’s going to affect your number.”"

Will this impact the NHL’s decision to have the 2017 Winter Classic in Toronto? It could, as Wyshynski believes the NHL should go back to having two US teams, with a game between the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins.

However, while the NHL might want to appease their American TV partner, they cannot simply overlook the significance of this event for Canada, especially for Leafs fans. The NHL has made it a priority to grow the game in the US, with the Canadian markets stable.

However, the NHL cannot simply ignore the impact a Winter Classic in Toronto will have, despite the struggles the franchise has been through in recent years. Canadian broadcast company Rogers and the NHL signed a 12-year $5.2 billion deal (roughly $433 million annually, significantly more than the $2 billion, 10 year deal between the NHL and NBC.

Maple Leafs
Mar 22, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; The Canadian flag is displayed in the crowd during the Canadian national anthem in a game against D.C. United at BMO Field.Toronto FC won 1-0.Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports /

The NHL should not be too worried about what NBC thinks about a Winter Classic hosted by a Canadian city, because you cannot argue with the success the Toronto market has had on many hockey events. A Winter Classic at BMO Field (the rumoured venue for the game) would sell out instantly.

Even though it may not have the same size as an NFL stadium, or the same historical appeal of Michigan Stadium, it will probably have the highest ever average ticket price for a Winter Classic. Now, add on merchandise sales, sponsorship, advertisement, the Winter Classic TV series and other activities.

Simply put, there is no better place than Toronto to host the next big outdoor game. Also, consider the fact Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment made a major investment in renovating BMO Field to increase the stadiums seat capacity for events like the Winter Classic.

If that is not enough to convince the NHL to give the Leafs a chance to host an outdoor game, then maybe the significance of the year 2017 will. Not only is the NHL celebrating its centennial anniversary, but so are the Leafs.

So why is the NHL being reluctant in making an announcement of an outdoor game in Toronto? One factor could be the lower TV numbers that Rogers has reported this season, with the Leafs being one of the reason why.

Maple Leafs
Sep 9, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Ryan McDonagh and Dave Pastrnak and Sidney Crosby and Anze Kopitar appear on stage together with host Scott Levy during a press conference and media event for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports /

However, a Leafs Winter Classic will no doubt have a strong viewership, as they should be a far better team next season. Another factor that has been suggested, is that Toronto will have a busy hockey calendar in the 2016-17 season. with the World Cup of Hockey and the World Junior tournaments.

If you add an outdoor game and other planned events for the centennial anniversary, could it be too much for Toronto to handle? Probably not, but other teams could wonder why Toronto has to get everything in its centennial year. because it is rumored they also want an outdoor game, the All-Star game and the draft.

I’m sure if the Leafs organization had a choice between hosting the All-Star event or an outdoor game, they would choose the latter, especially because of the struggles the NHL has had with the All-Star game. When speaking with Kevin Allen from USA Today NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had this to say about  putting together a Winter Classic.

"“We look for matchups and locations that will have maximum appeal on New Year’s Day without trying to overdo it with certain clubs and certain locations. We’ve talked about Lambeau Field, about Notre Dame, about Penn State, about West Point.We are always being pitched with ideas about doing some new and different things. Some of  them are feasible, and some not so much. But in the first instance we are trying to use these games with our teams in the local markets because the demand has been phenomenal. “"

Bettman also addressed the issues with a Canadian team being included in an American broadcast. When asked about the potential of having two Canadian teams in a Winter Classic, he said: ” In terms of attracting a U.S. audience, you do need at least one U.S. team.”

So if the Leafs do host a Winter Classic, it would have to be against an American team, with the New York Rangers rumored to be that team. Really, any of the Original Six American teams – the Rangers, Bruins, Red Wings or Blackhawks – would work as opponents for the Leafs.

If the NHL decides to give the Leafs another outdoor game rather than the Winter Classic, it has to be a game involving the Canadiens or the Ottawa Senators, which would be great for Canadian TV not so much for the US. Ultimately though, it is hard for the NHL to ignore what the Toronto hockey market has done in terms of driving revenue – even without a Stanley Cup since 1967 – and having one of the most passionate hockey fans in the world.

Overall, the NHL is either making the organization wait patiently for a decision or is seriously doubting having another Canadian team in the Winter Classic. The NHL front office usually does a good job of keeping their poker face on, but when it comes to a major hockey event in Toronto, it won’t take long before they have to reveal their cards.

Next: Questions left to be answered for the Leafs in 2016

Do you think the NHL would be foolish doubting Toronto as a viable candidate for the Winter Classic next season? Let us know in the comments section below.