Nationals Park is awash in the glow of its first-ever baseball playoff games this week, and with the weather turning colder, it's not too hard to imagine another big event in Navy Yard coming soon.
Imagine New Year's Day, 2014. The Capitals are taking on an opponent in front of a national stage, with one of the prominent figures in the upcoming Sochi Olympics skating across the Nationals Park infield as future Russian Olympian Alexander Ovechkin battles outdoors. The President's Race is run on skates for the first time in the District, and all the elements of America's summer pastime are translated to the winter game that has surged in popularity during that time frame as well. At the end of the game, USA Hockey announces its roster for the Olympics in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol as the sun sets on a chilly January afternoon.
But given the news coming out of Michigan this week, that vision might never come to pass.
This year's Winter Classic between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs is currently scheduled for New Year's Day in Ann Arbor, Michigan. But with the news in Tuesday's Detroit Free Press that the NHL isn't visiting the site this month to make necessary scouting preparations for the game due to the lockout, it could set the wheels in motion for what would be a big event in Washington to be put off for at least a year.
Back in 2009, the Capitals were reportedly going to be scheduled to face the Boston Bruins at Fenway Park in the 2010 Winter Classic. But NBC apparently intervened, concerned over potential ratings, and the league sent the Philadelphia Flyers to Boston instead. The Capitals were understandably very unhappy at being left off the card. As a result, to ensure Washington would agree to participate in the 2011 Winter Classic in Pittsburgh, the NHL in turn promised the city would host an outdoor game of its own within a short time frame.
"In doing our due diligence for this game, we could not help but be impressed by the fan interest and the possibilities in Washington D.C., so our plan is to do an outdoor game in Washington in the next two to three years," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters during the 2010 Stanley Cup Final. "We think that will be an excellent venue opportunity, market and fan base for us to connect to with this event as well."
Two years after that statement, the NHL still hasn't firmed up its official plans to bring the outdoor game to the nation's capital, but the city - along with Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota - is on the short list of future hosts for the event that brings fans, lots of merchandising and also the league's highest regular-season TV ratings each January.
If this Winter Classic goes off without a hitch on January 1, the 2014 Winter Classic would most likely be held in the Washington area, especially given NBC's tie-in with the upcoming Sochi Olympics and the potential to introduce the U.S. Olympic roster in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol. While the opponent isn't as clear - it could be one of several ratings-friendly teams such as the Bruins in a playoff rematch, a regional rivalry with the Flyers, a East vs. West battle with the Chicago Blackhawks or even a 2011 Winter Classic rematch with the Pittsburgh Penguins, given the promise made to the franchise back in 2010 - and Ted Leonsis' spot on the NHL's negotiating committee - it seems very likely that Nationals Park or FedEx Field will host the next edition.
Of the two local venues that could host the event, Nationals Park seems a more likely candidate, given its location in the District as well as the connection between the Nationals' and Capitals' ownership groups. FedEx Field might be an option if the opponent demands more than the 41,888 seats Nats Park could provide, but it seems the odds are the game would be held in the District itself.
However, if this year's Winter Classic isn't played - sharp-eyed fans will note the logo for the Michigan event doesn't even have the year on it, unlike other editions - it seems almost assured that 2014 game will go to Ann Arbor. With 115,000 fans expected to attend at Michigan Stadium, and with the merchandising possibilities in both Michigan and Ontario expected to be big, there's virtually no chance the league would hold off until 2015 to hold the event there.
The revenue generated from one afternoon in Michigan would be nearly as great - if not greater - than the ticket money pulled in for the entire regular season of several low-end clubs. And, with tickets having been sold over the summer for the event, it seems the league would rather be in a holding pattern than kick the Michigan event two years down the road.
For Capitals fans, it will be worth watching to see if the events in Michigan have an impact here, as should the 2013 Winter Classic in Ann Arbor get scrubbed, it also means the much-anticipated Washington Winter Classic will be another year away.
And - like many things with the ongoing lockout - that would be an opportunity lost for both the NHL and its fans in Washington.