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A Winter Classic taking place in Pittsburgh'

Penguins/NHL Videos

By Joe Starkey and Rob Rossi,
Sunday, Dec. 28, 2008
 

Picture an outdoor hockey game on the North Side, pitting, say, the Penguins against the Montreal Canadiens or the Philadelphia Flyers, with the city's magnificent skyline providing the backdrop.

Penguins captain Sidney Crosby can.

"That would be pretty amazing," Crosby said. "It could happen, for sure. Maybe not next year, but eventually, that would be something pretty cool to do. I think we'd all enjoy that. We had a great time at the one in Buffalo."

The one in Buffalo went off memorably last New Year's Day, when the Penguins played the Buffalo Sabres in the first regular-season outdoor NHL game in the United States.

It proved to be one of the more successful one-day events in NHL history, drawing a crowd of more than 71,000 at Ralph Wilson Stadium and the highest television ratings for a NHL game in 12 years.

A light snow and a storybook ending helped. The Penguins won, 2-1, on Crosby's shootout goal, and the success of the game prompted the NHL to stage another "Winter Classic" this season. It is scheduled for New Year's Day at Wrigley Field in Chicago, where the Blackhawks will take on the Detroit Red Wings.

Assuming this is now an annual event, the Penguins would love to get on board. In fact, within days of last year's Winter Classic, the team was urging NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to consider Pittsburgh as an option.

Next year wouldn't be realistic, with the Penguins closing Mellon Arena and preparing to move into the Consol Energy Center in 2010-11. The first year in the new building would be a bit hectic, as well.

But 2011-12• That might be the perfect season. Penguins spokesman Tom McMillan could imagine the event becoming a North Side New Year's celebration. Chicago is staging something of the sort New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, with a hockey-themed street festival around Wrigley Field.

"I'm sure we'll be considered very soon," McMillan said. "We realize (the NHL) is going to move the game around. After the success of the first one, they probably got inundated with people who want a game."

The league declined to comment on which teams are interested in hosting a Winter Classic and whether Pittsburgh is on the radar, though its Web site ( nhl.com ), recently posted a poll asking fans: "Where would you like to see the next Winter Classic?"

The choices were the new Yankee Stadium in New York, PNC Park, the Rogers Centre in Toronto and Fenway Park in Boston (Fenway Park drew 35.8 percent of the votes, the Rogers Center 27.1, Yankee Stadium 21.5 and PNC Park 15.6).

"While several clubs have expressed interest in hosting a Winter Classic, we will not begin focusing on future Winter Classics until after this one," Bettman said.

So far, the process of awarding the Winter Classic has not followed the models of the Olympics or Major League Baseball's All-Star Game, where cities lobby for the game, league spokesman Frank Brown said.

The viable venues here would be PNC Park, home of the Pirates, or Heinz Field, home of the Steelers - though Heinz Field could be complicated by the fact that the Steelers often play home playoff games this time of year.

Steelers spokesman Dave Lockett said the team already has informed the Penguins it would be interested in hosting a game. Pirates president Frank Coonelly said: "We'd love to play host to a Winter Classic. We think it would be great for the city and the fans."

Either way, the Penguins have visions of something much bigger than just a game.

"Each city has its own unique assets and charms," McMillan said. "Pittsburgh has such an unbelievable skyline — you could see the city lit up, all kinds of possibilities. I can see turning that whole North Side into a New Year's Eve celebration."

Sid can see it, too.

Picking a venue

The best possible matchups and settings for future Winter Classics, as judged by Rob Rossi:

1. Capitals vs. Rangers (at Yankee Stadium)

A sharp-shooting Russian living in America's capital city (Alexander Ovechkin) takes his Big Apple-turn only hours after the ball drops at Times Square.

2. Lightning vs. Canadiens (on the St. Lawrence River)

French-Canadians can line the shores to watch black-ice hockey involving their beloved Habs and modern-day icons Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis.

3. Kings vs. Bruins (at Fenway Park)

Cheers to this chance to make stars of the Kid Kings at a place "where everybody knows your name."

4. Maple Leafs at Blue Jackets (at Ohio Stadium)

"The Horseshoe" is perfect for a bowl-like atmosphere thanks to thousands of traveling Torontonians.

5. Flyers vs. Penguins (at Beaver Stadium)

As neutral a Pennsylvania site as the league could find for its "Cold War" rivalry that divides commonwealth loyalties.

Face off

Columnist Joe Starkey and beat reporter Rob Rossi are in the circle and ready to debate ...

What should become of the Winter Classic?

Rossi rants ...

Hey, Joe, do you know that cupboard where the NHL has stuffed previously enjoyable things such as wooden sticks, horizontal striping on sweaters and the Quebec Nordiques• Yeah, well that is where the league should stick the Winter Classic after Thursday. At least for a year. Next season is about the 2010 Vancouver Games, where the NHL's galaxy of young stars (led by Canada's Sidney Crosby, Russia's Alexander Ovechkin and our own Patrick Kane) will be on display to an American audience. THAT should be classic. After that, outdoor hockey on New Year's Day is worth another look, but not unless the first game back is in new Yankees Stadium.

Starkey says ...

Rossi, with your nose so bright, why don't you pick a different fight• You have no chance here. First you want to deprive every hockey fan west of the Mississippi a chance to watch Sidney Crosby. Now you want to kill the Winter Classic, which is only the best event the pea-brained NHL has ever staged. Shoot, if you look at last year's TV ratings, you could make an argument they should hold one every weekend. Even in Florida. Pittsburgh absolutely should host one. Imagine the scene at PNC Park for a Penguins-Flyers New Year's Day matchup, complete with frozen pierogi races and Rob Rossi Bobbleheads. We'll call them "Robbleheads."

Hat trick

Rob Rossi's thoughts and observations as the Penguins beat writer:

Max-a-millions

The willingness to lock-up C Max Talbot with a two-year extension emphasizes the value of chemistry to GM Ray Shero. At this point in his career, Talbot's role has yet to be defined beyond that of an energy-providing third- or fourth-line forward that can fill in on a scoring line when needed. However, his value in the dressing room, where his leadership qualities shine, could not easily be replaced.

Late now never

With fans calling for trades and overall roster upheaval due to the Penguins' poor play of late, coach Michel Therrien reminded me last week that all teams go through stretches when results are not there. Of concern with this stretch, Therrien said, is the general malaise his club has shown at critical ventures in games. Those spirited third-period comebacks on a seemingly every-night basis in October have been nonexistent since mid-November.

Pick a pose

Team CEO Ken Sawyer has repeatedly spoken of constructing a statue to honor co-owner Mario Lemieux at Consol Energy Center, set to open in 2010. I'm told Lemieux, unarguably the greatest player in franchise history, is not a huge fan of the idea, but also appreciates that fans want a statue to honor a Penguins' Hall-of-Famer, much like ones for several Pirates' Hall of Famers at PNC Park. Expect the Penguins to commission several Lemieux statue designs and present those renderings for a fan vote.

The future

The Penguins' minor-league report is written by Jonathan Bombulie, who has covered the Baby Pens for The Citizens' Voice in Wilkes-Barre since the team's inception in 1999. He can be reached through e-mail.

STOCK UP

Tommy Goebel

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL) · Winger

5-foot-7 · 166 pounds

He's listed at 5-foot-7 and is probably an inch or two shorter than that. Tommy Goebel faces long odds, therefore, to ever make it to the NHL. His scoring touch, however, is growing increasingly more difficult to overlook. An undrafted rookie out of Ohio State, Goebel has used a combination of blinding speed and water bug quickness to put up nine points (5 goals, 4 assists) in 10 career AHL games. He had 27 points in 20 games with the ECHL's Wheeling Nailers before being called up to the Baby Pens earlier this month.

On another level

They've been putting up points at a prodigious pace in the minors, but once promoted to Pittsburgh, their production has been positively paltry.

Coming into the Christmas break, six skaters who started the season with the Baby Pens have been called up for a total of 30 NHL games. They've managed a total of three points — two assists for Jeff Taffe and one for Tim Wallace.

But here's the punchline. A lot of other NHL teams are in the same boat. Take a look at the rest of the Atlantic Division, for example.

New Jersey's call-ups have produced seven points in 45 games, and Philadelphia's have managed five points in 40 games. The Islanders, in 54 games, and Rangers, in 28 games, have both seen promoted players contribute three points.

A new jersey

After seeing his scoring touch dry up over the past season and a half, winger Jonathan Filewich welcomed a fresh start when he was traded to the St. Louis Blues last weekend.

"What could be better than an opportunity to show new teammates and a new organization what you're all about?" Filewich said. "I'm excited."

The change of scenery paid immediate dividends. In his first game with his new team, the Peoria Rivermen of the AHL, he scored the decisive goal in a shootout win over the Houston Aeros. Filewich was miserable in the shootout while with the Baby Pens, going 0 for 9 in his career.

Ticket trouble

According to published reports, Rob Brooks, co-owner of the ECHL's Wheeling Nailers, said decisions will have to be made about the future of the franchise if attendance does not improve.

Despite the fact that the Nailers got off to a 17-4-1-4 start and have been battling Johnstown for the top spot in the North Division all season, Wheeling ranks 18th in the 21-team league with an average crowd of 2,578.

Two ECHL teams, the Fresno Falcons and Augusta Lynx, have already folded this season.

For sale

Moments after his one-game conditioning assignment ended last Saturday night, defenseman Ryan Whitney found himself back on the Wachovia Arena ice as the Christmas-themed alternate jersey he wore was auctioned off to fans.

Whitney's jersey fetched the largest sum, going for $950, just ahead of goalie John Curry ($800), captain Dave Gove ($750) and leading scorer Chris Minard ($750).

EX-FACTOR

The Trib is keeping tabs on former Penguins.

This week: G Ty Conklin

Currently: Detroit Red Wings

By the numbers: 5-3-0, 2.92 GAA, .899 SV% through Thursday

Notable Pittsburgh past: Stopped 36 of 37 shots for Penguins in a 2-1 win at Ralph Wilson Stadium against the Buffalo Sabres on Jan. 1, 2008, the NHL Winter Classic.

Voice of the fan

Frances Larson (and family) · White Oak, Pa.

"The Penguins are a great bunch of guys. We were invited to the Make-A-Wish Foundation luncheon on (Dec. 19), and I can't say enough about how wonderful the players were. They took so much time with the kids and their families. It was the most magical day - we were given autographs and pictures with every player."

Got hockey thoughts• hockeyday@tribweb.com

What's on deck

The week ahead for the Penguins:

Tuesday

Penguins vs. Bruins

7:30 p.m.

TV: FSN Pittsburgh

Thursday

Penguins at Bruins

7 p.m.

TV: FSN Pittsburgh

Saturday

Penguins vs. Panthers

1 p.m.

TV: FSN Pittsburgh

NHL Game of the Week

Thursday · 1 p.m.

Red Wings at Blackhawks

Finally, a championship team will take Wrigley Field. Too bad for Cubbies fans that team is the Red Wings.

TV: NBC

Additional Information:

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