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Heritage Classic sponsorship trumps Winter Classic, surprises NHL

It's hard to imagine seven years passing before the NHL brings another outdoor game to Canada.

With the Heritage Classic fast approaching, the league is already seeing the benefits of having the Calgary Flames and Montreal Canadiens play outside at McMahon Stadium on Feb. 20.

In fact, sponsors have lined up and embraced the event to a degree not even seen for the Winter Classic outdoor game on New Year's Day—widely considered the signature date on the NHL calendar.

"We've got more sponsorship dollars against this game than we actually did even (at the Winter Classic) in Pittsburgh, which is amazing to me," NHL COO John Collins said Friday in an interview. "It just speaks to the (interest). Believe me, Pittsburgh was by far the biggest event business that we've had to date."

At least until they arrive in Calgary later this month.

Tim Hortons signed on as title sponsor of the Heritage Classic—the company's first ever partnership with the league—and will be joined by other sponsors including Canadian Tire, Scotiabank, BlackBerry and Budweiser.

The NHL hasn't brought an outdoor game to Canada since the very first one was held at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium in November 2003. In the meantime, it created the annual Jan. 1 Winter Classic outdoor game in the U.S., which has proven to be a major hit.

"I think we're back to where it all started," said Collins. "Being able to get back and play an outdoor game in Canada is something that we've been hearing from the fans and from our corporate partners and the clubs is overdue."

The league currently has no official plans for future outdoor games. However, Collins acknowledged that the contract with Tim Hortons on the Heritage Classic is for "multiple years" and virtually every team has expressed interest in the event.

When you couple that with the sponsorship success in Calgary, it's reasonable to expect another Canadian outdoor game sooner than later.

"When the fans and the corporate partners and your broadcast partners tell you things are important, you tend to listen to them and figure out how to get these kind of things done," said Collins.

There are some obvious drawbacks to the Canadian outdoor games. Temporary seating at McMahon Stadium has boosted the capacity to roughly 41,000, but that's well short of the 68,111 who crammed Pittsburgh's Heinz Field on Jan. 1.

Outside of Commonwealth Stadium, there aren't any outdoor venues in the country that can come close to reaching that kind of attendance number.

"The gate's aren't as large," said Collins. "It puts a little more pressure on the corporate community to embrace the game. ... That's what they've done."

The Heritage Classic will mark the end of an extremely busy stretch for the league. After staging the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 and the all-star game in Raleigh last weekend, it will be the third major event in a span of 50 days.

It's been a strategy that Collins has helped drive since taking a job with the NHL in August 2008. In addition to the outdoor games, the league now holds its award show in Las Vegas and plays regular season games in Europe, among other initiatives.

"This is what we do," said Collins. "We've talked for years now about building out a year-round calendar of big events. ... I think this year in particular you're really starting to see that."

While noting that he expects the Heritage Classic to be the "most interesting" of the league's events so far in 2011, Collins paid tribute to the Oilers for staging the first game back in 2003.

"A lot of credit frankly (goes) to Edmonton and the first Heritage," he said. "Obviously, that just burned a great memory in everyone's minds and we're able to pivot off of that and bring it back."

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