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How to make the Centennial Classic great

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Outdoor games are old hat. How do we make this one stand out?

2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic - Toronto Maple Leafs v Detroit Red Wings Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

On January 1st, 2017 the Toronto Maple Leafs host the Detroit Red Wings in the NHL Centennial Classic; an outdoor game that gives Toronto a present for its 100th birthday, while not including a Canadian/non-Chicago team in the Winter Classic, keeping NBC happy.

In 2014, the Maple Leafs defeated the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 in a shoot out in the Winter Classic, in front of a crowd of 105,491, at Michigan Stadium, in Ann Arbour, MI. With BMO Field in Toronto holding less than half the capacity of Michigan Stadium, what can the Maple Leafs do to make this outdoor game memorable?

In all honesty, probably not much.

Outdoor games are a dime a dozen these days, and this one has the World Junior Hockey Championships, also in Toronto, to compete with for attention.

On the day of the game there’s no WJC games to compete with, but in the week leading up to it there’s daily competition. Working around the schedule of the WJC, I have some ideas to make the most of the temporary set up at BMO.

Alumni Game

2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic - Alumni Games
DETROIT, MI - DECEMBER 31: Alumni of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings pose for a group photo on the ice following their game during the 2013 Hockeytown Winter Festival Alumni Showdown on December 31, 2013 at Comerica Park in Detroit, Michigan.
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Yes, it’s the mandatory Alumni Game. Forget about ratings and the fact that tickets for these games are mandatory when you want tickets to the real game. It’s happening. Last time these two teams met up there were two alumni games. That’s a bit much, and it watered down the rosters. Sorry Claude Loiselle, but you were pretty obviously on the B team. Why even have a B team? And can we have a talk about why Brad May keeps showing up as Maple Leafs alumni? He played less than 40 games. I think the rules for inclusion needs to be higher than “lives nearby.” Let’s stick with the Sundins, Gilmours, and CuJos please.

How do we make this more interesting? Well, that’s a really hard question to answer. Looking at it from a high level it’s just a game of shinny from an old timers league.

One option would is to give the players something to compete for. Through ticket sales, team donations, or events sponsors put up a prize of $200,000 to the winning teams charity; The Detroit Red Wings Foundation or the MLSE Team Up Foundation.

Another is to build fan excitement. One year there was a charity hockey game in town with the Bruins alumni. For a certain donation to the charity you would get a ballot for a draw to be the assistant coach for the Bruins alumni team.

Yeah, they normally trot out old coaches, and they can still do that. But how awesome would it be to get to slap Sundin on the shoulder and tell him to ‘get out there and get us a goal’? This could help raise the pot for the winning charities, or be a separate donation. Set it up as a contest between the two teams to see who could sell more tickets. Make it $25 per ticket, I bet there’s plenty of fans who would throw down $1,000 for 40 entries.

AHL Game

Right now the Marlies are on a road trip over new years. They leave town December 28th and don’t return until January 7th. However, they are in town for the annual Boxing Day game, which is currently scheduled for Ricoh Coliseum. Why not open up BMO early and have the Marlies host the Ice Caps in an outdoor game on Boxing Day?

The game is set for 3PM right now, and for the World Juniors in Toronto at 3:30PM it’s Latvia-USA. What would grab more eyeballs and ticket sales? The Americans tromping poor little Latvia or a cheap outdoor game with the lil’ Leafs and baby Habs?

Canada plays Russia at 8PM on Boxing Day, and the Marlies game would wrap up by 6PM, leaving two hours for people to get home in time for the Canada game. Hey, you may even get some ticket holders for Canada/Russia to this game.

There’s nothing going on at BMO Field once the MLS season is over, so there is plenty of time to prep the field in time for Boxing Day.

OHL Games

The week leading up to the Centennial Classic is a perfect one to promote every level of hockey the area around Toronto has to offer. There are are six OHL teams in a 50 mile radius of Toronto; Mississauga Steelheads, Oshawa Generals, Guelph Storm, Kitchener Rangers, Hamilton Bulldogs, and the Niagara IceDogs. Why not extend an invite to some of those teams to make use of the field while it’s still there?

The OHL schedule is already out, but we do have some games to work with.

Wednesday December 28th: London Knights vs Oshawa Generals.

A home game for Oshawa, and while London is outside that radius I mentioned, the reigning OHL & Memorial Cup champions would be a draw for sure. London has 2 Leafs prospects on the team for sure with Mitch Marner still having the possibility of being sent back to the OHL (if he’s not in the World Juniors). The Oshawa Generals have a Leafs connection as well, with Nik Antropov’s son joining as a rookie this season.

Friday December 30th: Niagara IceDogs vs Mississauga Steelheads

A home game for Mississauga moves down the QEW to BMO Field. The closest OHL team to Toronto hosts the former Mississauga team. The Steelheads are looking to be a dominant team in the upcoming OHL season, and a showcase like this would be a huge opportunity to show off and draw more crowds in for the end of the season.

Women’s Game

The CWHL is taking a Christmas break, no games are played between December 19th and January 6th. This break sits approximately at the mid point of the CWHL season, and this is a great opportunity to hold the CWHL All-Star game in a unique setting, and it’s only a few weeks earlier than usual.

Another option is to have another CWHL/NWHL exhibition game, like Boston hosted last year. However with both leagues on downtime it could be an All-Star showcase, with the best of both women’s hockey leagues facing off against each other.

Winter training camps could be in the way of this happening, but if there’s a chance to get something added, I think it’d be a worthwhile addition.

Community Access

So you have the rink set up for a week. What else will you do to fill time? I’d get the community involved in two ways. One is to rent it out. Companies would love the chance to score an hour or two on the ice here, a Christmas event for employees and families, or to give some time to favoured clients. That will help pay for the costs or running the rink.

Another is raffle off ice time for league teams, adults, kids, teenagers. Sell more raffle tickets, or have a sponsored contest, Scotiabank or Tim Hortons hockey could get involved and pick from teams they sponsor.

A chance to play on a rink like this is once in a lifetime. I loved getting to play up on the Molson skyscraper rink, and anyone lucky enough to play a game here would enjoy it just as much.

If you haven’t been to an outdoor game, go. I went to watch two of my least favourite teams play in the first Winter Classic and had a great time, and turning this one day event into a week long celebration gives access to the many, many, many who won’t want to either pony up the couple hundred to get tickets or won’t even get the chance to watch the Leafs/ Red Wings.