Winter Classic: Is hockey in PNC Park's future?

Penguins-Capitals matchup would be a hit at PNC Park


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BRADENTON, Fla. -- On a sunny, 74-degree day in Pirates spring training, team president Frank Coonelly paused for a moment to talk ... hockey.

On the North Shore.

On New Year's weekend 2011.

"Caps-Pens. Ovechkin and Crosby. At PNC Park," Coonelly mused Sunday, saying that the Pirates indeed have informed the NHL about their interest in playing host to the next Winter Classic which, they hope, could star Washington and Alex Ovechkin against Sidney and the Penguins.

"To me, it's the next logical venue," he added. "We've talked to the NHL the last couple of years, really after the success at Wrigley [Field] and Fenway [Park]," sites of the past two New Year's Day events pitting Detroit against Chicago and Boston against Philadelphia. He continued that, even more than those iconic ballparks, their 9-year-old venue offers a "picturesque location between the ballpark and the Pittsburgh skyline behind it."

The Penguins won in a shootout in the first Winter Classic in 2008 at Buffalo. N.Y., and soon afterward let NHL officials know they wanted to bring the game -- an instant NBC-television and marketing success -- to Pittsburgh.

"We have two great facilities to hold that -- Heinz Field and PNC Park," Penguins vice president Tom McMillan said, reiterating the Penguins' pitch to NHL administrators. "That's up to the league to make the choice of where they want it."

That inaugural Winter Classic was played in the NFL Buffalo Bills' Ralph Wilson Stadium before 71,217 fans. The ballpark crowds the past two Januarys were almost half that size, representing a significant drop in potential revenue from tickets that ranged from $50 to $350 apiece at Boston.

New York and Yankee Stadium seemed to be a front-runner -- Capitals-Rangers? -- for 2011, but officials signed a contract to hold a college football bowl game there between Christmas and New Year's Day each of the next four years. The NHL prefers a two-week period to construct and tear down the temporary rink and staging, although either the Mets' Citi Field or possibly new Giants Stadium conceivably could be open to the Winter Classic.

This year, New Year's Eve is a Friday, and a Winter Classic with the city's penchant for fireworks exploding over the skyline could make for a scintillating perspective and signature portrait. However, Coonelly talked about making it a weekend extravaganza the same as Boston did: playing host to college games with Robert Morris University one night and scheduling high school hockey games at other times.

The Penguins and the Consol Energy Center opening later this year have bid for other celebrated sporting events. The new arena will be home to first- and second-round games in the 2012 NCAA men's basketball tournament, and Penguins officials made a formal application to hold an NHL All-Star Game, with 2011's still up for grabs. "We're looking to bring a lot of events to Pittsburgh," McMillan said.

NHL administrators are expected to confer and make a determination next month.

"Right now," Coonelly said, "all their attention is on the Olympics."

Sunday off?

A handful of position players took Sunday off, what with today being their official reporting date -- five players hadn't shown up officially -- and the first formal workout coming Tuesday.

Ryan Church, Bobby Crosby, Andy LaRoche, Brandon Moss, Delwyn Young, Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez did not take the field Sunday. Meanwhile, Aki Iwamura worked for a second consecutive day among the rest of a group that as of Sunday didn't include McCutchen, Lastings Milledge, Ronny Cedeno, Gorkys Hernandez and Argenis Diaz. Non-roster invitee Jonathan Van Every reported Sunday after practice.

Number change

Pine-Richland's Neil Walker is wearing No. 18. Seems he got a call from the Pirates' clubhouse manager Scott Bonnett a month ago asking if he would mind a trade: the newly signed Church wanted No. 19, his number the previous five seasons in Washington and New York. Did Walker seek a negotiated settlement, as NFL players are wont to do? "Nah. Eighteen, 19, they look the same to the untrained eye," he said.

Buried treasure

• Asked about right-handed hitting possibilities at first base, manager John Russell mentioned Steve Pearce -- "who did some very good things at Triple-A last year and at times did some nice things at the big league level" -- and utility infielder Bobby Crosby, who played 54 games last season with Oakland in his pro debut at first. "I think those two guys give us the right-handed bat to look at and see where we go from there," Russell added.

• Fourth-overall choice Tony Sanchez has impressed Russell as a catcher. "I'm very pleased with what I've seen so far. I think he's got a great head on his shoulders as well. And he's got talent. I think it's going to take him a long way."

• Russell said he had no opening-day starting pitcher in mind yet.




Chuck Finder: cfinder@post-gazette.com . First Published February 22, 2010 5:00 AM


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