DETROIT - The Flyers might not have to wait too long to get another crack at the Winter Classic, after all.
Citing league sources, ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun - a well-connected commentator on CBC's "Hockey Night in Canada" - said on the air after Saturday's Winter Classic matchup in Pittsburgh that Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field is the "front-runner" to host next year's game.
The Flyers lost to the Bruins last New Year's Day at Boston's Fenway Park. Pittsburgh hosted Saturday's game at Heinz Field just 3 years after skating in the inaugural Winter Classic in Buffalo.
Comcast-Spectacor president Peter Luukko said yesterday that the Flyers had not yet been contacted by the NHL.
"We have not been contacted by the league," Luukko said. "We would certainly like to play a game in Philly next year or in the future."
The Flyers and Eagles have a healthy working relationship. Eagles senior vice president Pamela Browner White said yesterday that the team was not aware of the report. But that doesn't mean it won't happen. The NHL does not usually announce next year's site until the league schedule is unveiled in June or July. A league source said the NHL will collectively exhale this week after dodging the weather bullet for the outdoor game for the fourth straight year.
It seems to make sense that the NHL could be interested in the Flyers to host their next premier regular-season game: The Flyers are a successful, big-market team with a supportive fan base; they produce record ratings on television; the NHL prefers football stadiums to baseball venues; and weather has proven to not be the ultimate obstacle.
With the NHL's new mobile ice-making equipment, precipitation, more than temperature, determines the quality of the ice.
Yankee Stadium is tied up for 9 more years with the Pinstripe Bowl. To host the Winter Classic, the NHL would have to navigate around both the Giants' and Jets' schedule to skate at the New Meadowlands Stadium as opposed to just the Eagles.
The NHL would like to keep the Winter Classic between two American-based teams. They have developed the Heritage Classic, to be held next month in Calgary between the Flames and Montreal, for Canadian teams.
While many NHL cities would be interested in hosting the game, only a few are viable options. Philadelphia is near the borderline of how far south the game could be held. Buffalo, Chicago and Boston already have hosted games. There is no viable venue in Columbus, Long Island or Detroit - unless you include the "Big House" at the University of Michigan.
Denver and Minnesota also have expressed interest, though the Denver Post estimated Invesco Field's chances of hosting the event at "3 percent." Minnesota would need to play at the Twins' new Target Field, an unattractive baseball stadium, or the University of Minnesota's new football stadium. The average high temperature for Minnesota in January, 22 degrees, would make that a tough sell for fans.
What does that leave? Philadelphia. Possibly against the New York Rangers, who have yet to appear in the game despite having the league's second-most valuable franchise.
"We haven't heard anything yet," said Larry Needle, executive director of the Philadelphia Sports Congress, which helps attract big events to the city. "There's no question the NHL would be interested in Philadelphia. We'd be high on their list, a tremendous market to host an event like that. We would do whatever we could to pull it all together."
Leino on Detroit
Ville Leino had yesterday's date circled on his calendar for weeks - marking his return to Detroit for the first time since being traded to the Flyers last Feb. 4.
"I've been thinking about it since the first day of the season," Leino said. "It's been a long time. It's kind of weird to be back here."
Leino's brief tenure with the Red Wings was tumultuous. In 19 playoff games with the Flyers last year, Leino collected more points (21) than he did in 55 games (16) over two seasons with Detroit.
His trade to the Flyers for defenseman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, who is playing in Sweden this season, cleared enough salary-cap space for the Red Wings to add injured star Pavel Datsyuk to the roster.
Leino skated for 15 minutes, 26 seconds in last night's win, back with his familiar linemates, Scott Hartnell and Danny Briere. He has nine goals and 17 assists for 26 points this season.
"There's a lot of good and a lot of bad [memories]," Leino said. "The last days weren't so good. Some of the other days, I wanted to play more and others I didn't even play as well as I wanted. But there are some good memories. They were my first team - and my first team in the U.S."
Forward Nik Zherdev was scratched last night - but the Flyers say this time he was not a healthy scratch, despite collecting more than a few splinters on the bench recently. A team spokesman said Zherdev has a lower body injury and is day-to-day.
Jody Shelley returned from his two-game suspension and skated on a line with Dan Carcillo and Blair Betts.
It's hard to believe that Peter Laviolette hasn't found a more productive way to utilize Zherdev, who, with 13 goals, would lead Edmonton, Florida, Minnesota, Nashville, New Jersey, the Islanders, Ottawa, Phoenix and St. Louis in scoring. *