When the NHL announced their plans for the 2024 Winter Classic, Canucks fans were sure in for a shock.
The Canucks were snubbed of the opportunity to face the Seattle Kraken in an outdoor game down the I-5 in favour of the Vegas Golden Knights for the NHL’s marquee game at T-Mobile Park, home of the Seattle Mariners, in January 2024.
A lot of potential reasons for why have already been thrown around online. “The league doesn’t want Canadian teams playing!” “They don’t want negative Vancouver fans and media ruining it!” “The league only gives them to teams to force rivalries and increase exposure!”
But the actual reason why the Canucks probably got overlooked is a lot more mundane and uninteresting.
Maybe, just maybe, the Canucks aren’t good enough to be picked for one, and for that, they just have themselves to blame.
The NHL knows how much sense a Canucks-Kraken rivalry makes. The league might not be the best at marketing itself, but the NHL does understand the value of geographical rivalries, and they want to make this one work. Heck, only a few weeks ago a leak from the league’s Board of Governors’ meetings mentioned discussions about increasing the season to 84 games to allow for more matchups between geographical rivals.
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And let’s not forget, the NHL didn’t choose the Canucks as the Kraken’s first-ever home opponent by accident last season. It was practically a foregone conclusion from the day Seattle got their team.
But when it comes to marquee matchups like outdoor games, they’ve shown that they’d rather have a pair of teams they feel are pulling their weight on the ice.
When the Flames hosted the Heritage Classic in 2011, they got the playoff-bound Canadiens instead of the tanking Oilers. The Wild got the Blues for last year’s Winter Classic because their biggest rivals, the Blackhawks, were trending downwards. And the Coyotes and Panthers, two teams who’ve struggled at the box office and could’ve benefitted heavily from a signature home game in the past, have never played outdoors.
The league hasn’t even been adverse to Vancouver taking part in big league events; they hosted the NHL Draft as recently as 2019. But that doesn’t require a good hockey team on the ice to make it successful.
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Vegas is an easier team to market in the States than Vancouver, but they’re also a strong enough franchise to be selected for their own outdoor game instead of being the opponent in someone else’s. The brand spanking new Allegiant Stadium, home of the NFL’s Raiders, is surely high on the NHL’s list for a Stadium Series backdrop. They also played outdoors fairly recently, as the pseudo-hosts for the 2021 NHL Outdoor Series in Lake Tahoe.
It’s certainly possible the Knights weren’t the first choice, and that the league was really hoping a certain different team would give them a reason to go in another direction.
NHL Chief Content Officer Steve Mayer seemed to say the quiet part out loud when asked by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman why the Knights got the nod.
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“Vegas came about because we thought, ‘how cool would it be to bring in the last two franchises to play against each other?’,” Mayer said before letting some additional context slip.
“We wanted Vegas to be a part of these games because we thought they earned it.”
Simply put, Vegas has been “earning” opportunities to host the NHL’s big events since they entered the league in 2017. Even the Kraken have vastly improved from last season. The Canucks have not.
They’ve never been opposed to cross-border matchups for these games, either. The Canadiens and Maple Leafs have played in one Winter Classic each, as well as a handful of outdoor games here in Canada.
Other Canadian teams have gotten the nod for outdoor games plenty of times, too. The Flames and Oilers will each play in their third this October when they face off in the 2023 Heritage Classic. Even the smaller market Senators and Jets have both played outside twice.
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Why have the other six Canadian teams been picked so many more times? Because they’ve all been consistently competitive for large stretches of the last decade. The Canucks have not.
Maybe the Canucks felt this game was owed to them based on proximity alone, and they didn’t bother to put together a team with any semblance of a direction to guarantee it played out that way. Meanwhile, teams in nontraditional markets like Nashville, Dallas and Carolina have put in the time and effort to earn these opportunities by building strong franchises from the ground up, bringing sellout crowds through the doors and winning a lot of hockey games.
Have the Canucks done any of those things since they first hit organizational rock bottom in the infamous 2014 Heritage Classic? Not even close.
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This won’t be the only opportunity. Lumen Field, home of the Seahawks, is another big candidate for an outdoor game in the future. There’ll be more chances.
But hopefully, this snub will force the Canucks to look at the current state of their organization, and realize that’s probably why the Golden Knights will play on New Year’s Day against the Kraken in Seattle first, and they aren’t.