Leonsis credits fans for getting Winter Classic

Leonsis credits fans for getting Winter Classic
September 21, 2013, 4:30 pm
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Winter Classic should be played in the District

Ted Leonsis remembers sitting down on his couch, flicking on his TV and settling in to watch what the NHL was touting as a Winter Classic between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

It was New Year’s Day, 2008, and it was snowing in Orchard Park, N.Y.

“I got goose bumps,” Leonsis said, referring to Sidney Crosby’s shootout game winner in what looked like a 70,000-seat snow globe. “I thought, ‘This is incredible.’

“I’m not exaggerating when I say it was literally 5 minutes into the game when I said, ‘This is the greatest thing I’ve seen and what do I have to do to get one in Washington, D.C?”

Three years later the Capitals were playing in the 2011 Winter Classic in Pittsburgh and when more than 20,000 Caps fans invaded Heinz Field, Leonsis had the backing he needed to convince NHL commissioner Gary Bettman the nation’s capital was ready to host a Winter Classic.

“It wasn’t like I was promoting our fans to go to Pittsburgh,” Leonsis said. “That was a very organic, self-directed set of circumstances. And [Bettman] said, ‘We’ll give you a game.’ And I said, ‘OK, when?’”

Now we know. The Caps will host the Winter Classic on Jan. 1, 2015. A location and an opponent will be announced sometime before the end of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs.

“We owe this to the passionate, fantastic fan base,” Leonsis said. “If they don’t show up, if there’s not a sea of red, there’s no Winter Classic.”

NHL chief operating officer John Collins said the willingness of the Capitals to open their locker rooms for the filming of HBO’s first 24/7 documentary, along with the city’s growing reputation as a hockey town helped seal the league’s decision to award the Caps the 2015 Classic.

“But that [2011 Winter Classic] was huge from the standpoint of how many Capitals fans embraced the event and attended the event,” Collins said.

“We appreciated it and the Caps have been a marquee team now in the NHL for several years. Plus doing something in Washington is just exciting. This isn’t just pop a rink up and have a game. It’s what can we do in D.C. to highlight the game?”

Leonsis said he would like to see the Classic stay within the city limits, allowing the National Mall to become a hockey-crazed courtyard.

“It helps to celebrate downtown,” he said. “There are still people who don’t understand how magnificent a city we have and how strong the economy is.

“When you bring in 20-30,000 people downtown and you’re able to raise money for a bunch of charities – each of these Winter Classics has served as a backbone to raise millions of dollars for youth hockey, for rinks, for college hockey, for charities the host city supports.

“I think that’s very, very meaningful. It will generate tax dollars; it will generate revenue, and I think it makes the fan base feel good about itself. You’re in our city, you’re in our town.”

Now, if Leonis can only convince Mother Nature to wave a magic wand over the city on New Year’s Day, 2015.

“I just hope we get a cold spell,” he said, “and maybe even some snow.”