ANN ARBOR, Mich. – A complicated and costly deal is in the works that would see Toronto’s BMO Field significantly expanded in time for the Maple Leafs to host the Winter Classic in their centennial season, Sportsnet has learned.
Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment has held high-level discussions with the municipal, provincial and federal governments and believes that they are all on board with renovating the six-year-old stadium, according to president and CEO Tim Leiweke. The driving force behind the proposed expansion is a desire to hold major events like the Winter Classic and NHL sources indicate that Toronto is in line to land the signature outdoor game should the building’s capacity be increased.
Leiweke insists that won’t be an issue if the league is committed to bringing the game to a Canadian city for the first time ever – likely in concert with the Maple Leafs’ 100th anniversary season in 2016-17.
“I think if the league liked that idea we can 100 per cent get a deal done with the various government agencies and then do the renovation so we’d be ready,” Leiweke said in an exclusive interview on Tuesday. “A lot of it will be what the league wants. If they came to us and said `We want to shoot for that, we’d be ready for that.”’
The biggest issue to be worked out for the project is determining how it is financed. BMO Field was built in 2007 for a little more than $60-million and Leiweke acknowledged that the cost of expanding it would likely end up being at least twice that much.
“It’s big money, huge money,” he said.
The building is owned by the City of Toronto and Leiweke indicated that all three levels of government would likely kick in for the upgrade. The current capacity is about 22,000 for soccer and it would need to be almost doubled to make it feasible to hold a Winter Classic.
Even though Wednesday’s outdoor game between the Leafs and Detroit Red Wings is expected to draw more than 105,000 fans to the Big House, previous versions of the event at Boston’s Fenway Park, Chicago’s Wrigley Field and Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park were all in the 40,000-seat range. In Leiweke’s mind, an expanded BMO Field could also be used to attract a number of big events including the Grey Cup and MLS all-star game, among other things.
“It fits a lot of needs,” he said. “It renovates it for TFC, it certainly renovates it for the Pan Am Games, it renovates it for rugby. The Grey Cup would be phenomenal in an outdoor setting in Toronto on the lake, but (the Winter Classic is) clearly one of the things we put on the wishlist.
“The city, the province and the feds have all told us it’s important to them from an economic stimulus standpoint because we see what it’s doing to the economy in Detroit now – imagine what would happen in Toronto.”
The NHL seems to have established a pattern of having visiting teams in the Winter Classic eventually serve as host of the game. That isn’t likely to change even though the Leafs will become the first Canadian team to even participate on Wednesday.
John Collins, the NHL’s chief operating officer, is enthusiastic about the possibility of bringing the event to Toronto.
“I think it would be great,” Collins told Sportsnet. “Frankly, I think the commissioner’s vision has been that the league’s centennial and the Toronto Maple Leafs centennial would be a good time to do something like this if they had a venue that would be appropriate.”
The Leafs are actually vying for all of the league’s major events. They are hoping to host the draft, all-star game and Winter Classic at some point during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons.
However, the expansion of BMO Field seems to be at the heart of the entire plan. The hope is that the stadium would be built up with more permanent seating while also leaving some room for temporary seating that could be brought in for major events in addition to that.
The NHL and MLSE have held a number of discussions recently and are likely to formalize a plan after Wednesday’s game at the University of Michigan.
“This is their game and we’d be honoured to host it,” said Leiweke. “I think at the end of the day we’ve got to follow their lead. What we’re doing now is working hard and trying to figure out what kind of capacity they want and when best to do it.
“Look, there’s other things we want to host – we’d like all-star games and drafts to be part of the bigger picture. There’s an awful lot going on between us and the league.”
What exactly a Winter Classic would look like in Toronto remains to be seen.
Leiweke hinted that the Leafs are hoping to expand the event to include even more ancillary activities than there are already. He believes that everything from the number of hotel rooms in the city to the various transportation options to the open space around the stadium make it an ideal location.
“It’s not iconic like Fenway and it’s not iconic like Wrigley, but on the other side of it is there a more important place to play the game than Toronto?” said Leiweke. “I think if we can find a way from a location standpoint a way to host a Winter Classic where it’s right in downtown, right connected to where all the other events are going to be (it would be special).
“You have the ability of not only integrating but also doing a massive public celebration right there in Ontario Place or Exhibition Place and then I think you’re dealing with an even bigger Winter Classic than anything they’ve ever had.”
The only thing that seems to stand between seeing that dream become a reality is getting BMO Field expanded in a timely fashion. However, the MLSE boss sounded motivated by the NHL’s clear interest in bringing the Winter Classic north of the border.
“We know what we’ve got to do and we’ve seen some designs already that would work,” said Leiweke. “We have a pretty good idea how to take the capacity and get it to one level for permanent and expand it for things like this.
“We have a path – now we’re just trying to figure it out.”