NHL's John Collins Discusses Evolution, Success of Winter Classic
Contrary to legend, John Collins did not invent the NHL Winter Classic. The game of ice hockey has been played outdoors for well over a century. The Heritage Classic, played in an Edmonton football stadium between the Oilers and Montreal Canadiens in 2003, predates the hiring of Collins as the league's chief operating officer.
But with projected ticket revenue of $9 million for the Classic at Heinz Field on New Year's Day between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals, plus countless streams from broadcasting and merchandising, Collins is grateful to the many executives who have built the event.
"When I started with the NHL four years ago, a lot of my colleagues had these amazing photos in their offices from the outdoor game in Edmonton," Collins told FanHouse while preparing to leave for Pittsburgh. "I'd been with the NFL and I wasn't familiar with the Heritage Classic. I was mesmerized by the photos. I would say to everyone, 'Tell me about this game' and 'Do you think we can do it again?' and 'How can we grow it as an event?' From there, it has been a completely collaborative effort."
Collins went on to name some of the collaborators. Consider these some of the founding fathers:
John Miller, NBC Sports executive: "When we started talking about a possible stadium game, John came to the NHL with an open time slot on NBC on New Year's Day," said Collins. "Having it on the holiday, everyone knowing the big game is on Jan. 1, is a crucial part of its success. John is a major pioneer of this event."
Larry Quinn, Buffalo Sabres president: "Larry and Sabres management had the foresight and the guts in 2008 to give up a home date against the Penguins for the first Winter Classic. You have to understand, that's not as easy to do as you might think. The outdoor games are operated by the league."
Don Renzulli, NHL senior VP of events: "I call him 'Mush,' because he has the perfect temperament for someone in charge of such a massive operation. As the game approaches, nothing gets him too excited and nothing gets him too down. He just shrugs everything off and gets the job done." (Sure enough, Renzulli has exuded a no-biggie approach to weather reports calling for 50 degrees and heavy rains for game time).
Patrick LaForge, Edmonton Oilers president: "With the Heritage Classic, Patrick, the Oilers and everyone involved with the game showed us how it was done. They set the template." (The second Heritage Classic will be played on Feb. 20 in Calgary between the Flames and the Canadiens).
Dave Burwick, former Pepsi chief marketing officer: "You need a major corporate partner for your first big game, but you're really just selling an idea and not much else. Dave had the Amp products and Pepsi and he believed in the Winter Classic. I'll always remember him stepping up for us."
According to data provided by the NHL, it appears Burwick was on to something. League sponsorship revenue is up $330 million over the last three years, with the signature New Year's Day event as the driving force. All broadcast spots on NBC are sold out, with NHL partners buying 37 units -- up from 28 last year. Geico and Verizon have created hockey-centric spots, a rarity for major companies in the U.S. The Winter Classic gear by Reebok (knit hats, scarves, workout shirts) is such a massive revenue generator -- 38,000 jerseys have been sold as of this week -- Collins refers to the merchandising as "our 31st team." HBO's four-part "24/7" documentary is bringing the NHL closer to the casual fan. Projected revenue for the 2011 Classic is up 20 percent from last year's game between the Bruins and Flyers in Fenway Park and more than 200 percent over the 2008 game in Buffalo.
Not bad for a day's work, even if each Winter Classic is more than a year in the making.
"The mission for our league has always been to make the business as great as the game," said Collins, who said next year's site has not been determined. "The NHL game is great. The business is getting there."
For the fourth straight New Year's Day, the game and the business will be on the same playing field.