NHL bringing Winter Classic to Heinz Field

City gets another opportunity to strut its stuff on New Year's Day with matchup between Penguins and Capitals

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The National Hockey League is scheduling a marquee matchup -- and the city of Pittsburgh will have another chance to shine in the national spotlight -- when the Penguins and the Washington Capitals face off in the 2011 Winter Classic on New Year's Day at Heinz Field.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is expected to make the formal announcement of the game, along with several other high-profile league events, during a news conference today in Chicago.

The Winter Classic has been a huge success since the NHL introduced it to a national television audience Jan. 1, 2008, in a game pitting the Penguins against the Sabres in Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium. Since then, the game has been played in Chicago's Wrigley Field (2009) and Boston's Fenway Park (2010).

The 2011 game would be played on a Saturday and would feature some of the NHL's biggest stars in the Penguins' Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury going against the Capitals' Alex Ovechkin.

It also stands to be a frosty breath of life for the city's Downtown and North Shore merchants as thousands of fans flock into town.

"I heard that this was a possibility. And we got it!" said Hollie Geitner, vice president of marketing for the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. "It's wonderful. Anything that gives us national attention like that is a good thing."

Ms. Geitner pointed to the exposure the city received when the NFL kicked off the start of its 2008-09 season with a special Thursday night game and a concert with the Black Eyed Peas and Tim McGraw.

"That was phenomenal coverage, and this is very similar," Ms. Geitner said. "And this will give all the people who come Downtown for First Night the chance to stay the night and then enjoy the game the next day. This will be a real plus for our Downtown retailers, merchants and businesses. This is cool."

Craig Davis, vice president of sales and marketing for VisitPittsburgh, said filling Heinz Field with hockey fans would be even better than an extra Steelers game.

"It's more than that," Mr. Davis said. "Because it's a national event and a once-a-year kind of thing. It adds further cachet to a bunch of wins this city has seen. The G-20 for instance. The Sporting News naming us the No. 1 sports city. And this reaffirms that."

It's especially good news for Pittsburgh's hotels, he said.

"New Year's Eve is a good time of the year for the hotels, but because this is essentially coupled with First Night, it can be turned into a two-day event," Mr. Davis said. "That gives the hotels assurance that they're going to sell out for two nights. There's a significant economic impact that goes along with that."

Connie Breen, general manager of the Residence Inn by Marriott Pittsburgh North Shore, across the street from PNC Park, said the news was "very exciting" for the city's newest hotel.

"Having that additional demand will start the year with a boom. Usually, hotels see a lot of people stay for New Year's Eve, and they check out on New Year's Day, making that typically a day for us in the hotel to be cleaning up. With this, we stand to turn the house over with new guests. Or we might see people stay for the whole weekend."

Randy Lamp, manager of Calico Jack's Cantina on North Shore Drive across from Heinz Field, said the Winter Classic would be a boost in an otherwise weak day for the bar and restaurant business.

"Being that it's the day after New Year's Eve, we would do nothing during the day. We wouldn't even open until 4 o'clock," he said. "And then, it would just be an OK night. Even though it's a Saturday, it's the day after New Year's Eve and everybody's already partied out. This completely changes everything. We're basically not even going to go home after New Year's Eve, so we can get ready for the next day. We'll be open in the morning."

Dan Majors: dmajors@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1456.


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