Due to multiple factors, Cleveland isn't being awarded an NHL team any time soon, if ever. I wish we could get an NHL team here in Cleveland as it would give the city "The Big 4". Despite this, there's still a way for the National Hockey League to come to Cleveland.
The Cleveland Monsters transitioned from the Western Conference to the Eastern Conference before the start of the 2018-2019 season. Ever since then, the Monsters and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have seen each other four times a season. Twice in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and twice here in Cleveland.
Since Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is the AHL affiliate of the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Pittsburgh-Cleveland rivalry is indirectly continued.
The Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets are both members of the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference. The Pens and Jackets don't particularly like each other. As of recently though, Pittsburgh has dominated the rivalry. The Penguins won all four games against the Blue Jackets this past season. In Round 1 of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Pens eliminated the Jackets in five games, though it felt like a seven game series. The Penguins would go on to win their second consecutive Stanley Cup and their fifth overall as they had previously hoisted the cup in 1991, 1992, 2009, and 2016.
Despite the recent dominance from the Penguins over the Blue Jackets, the disdain is still there. This is very much similar to the rivalry between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns. The Steelers have dominated the Browns as of late, yet the disdain hasn't diminished.
Since the rivalry between Cleveland/Columbus and Pittsburgh runs so deep, the NHL should come to Cleveland annually for a neutral site game at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse during the regular season. The NHL does neutral site games throughout the season, so this wouldn't be anything new for them. They could call it the "Cleveland Classic" and have the first matchup be the Penguins and Blue Jackets.
Pittsburgh and Columbus playing in the inaugural "Cleveland Classic" would be great for all parties involved.
First, the Blue Jackets aren't typically one of the teams who get selected to play in the big neutral site games. For example, this season's Winter Classic will pit two storied franchises against each other. The Penguins will meet the Boston Bruins at Fenway Park in a battle of the black and yellow teams. The Stadium Series will be a matchup between two Metro Division rivals when the Washington Capitals take on the Carolina Hurricanes at Carter-Finley Stadium, home to the NC State football team. Putting Columbus in a neutral site game would be a nice change of pace.
Second, the Penguins, Blue Jackets, and the NHL as a whole would be expanding their fanbases into a new market. Cleveland has a stigma of strictly being a "football town", however, it really should be considered a sports town. If Cleveland hosted an annual neutral site game featuring the Columbus Blue Jackets, then hockey could gain more of a foothold and become more of a permanent fixture in the city. Especially if the Pittsburgh Penguins are the opponent in the inaugural game,
The NHL could take the "Cleveland Classic" a step further. How? Have the Blue Jackets play the 31 other teams from across the league at RMFH. That way, Cleveland fans can see star players such as Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers, Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Nathan MacKinnon of the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, and countless others.
Let's say there are Bruins and New York Rangers fans in town. Since Cleveland doesn't have an NHL team and the Monsters don't play every team in the AHL, which needs to change, those fans don't get to see their favorite teams live and in person. Instead, they have to settle for watching them on TV. However, if the Blue Jackets were to play the Bruins and Rangers in the "Cleveland Classic", those fans would get a chance to see their teams live and in person.
The name Cleveland Classic has been used before for neutral site games in the past. Back in 2019, the West Virginia Mountaineers and Ohio State Buckeyes went at it in the "Cleveland Classic" at RMFH (men's college basketball), I was in attendance for that matchup between the Mountaineers and Buckeyes. Although it wasn't March Madness, it sure felt like it. The energy level was tremendous and there wasn't an empty seat anywhere in the FieldHouse.
The Columbus Blue Jackets playing in an annual neutral site game, "The Cleveland Classic", at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland along with the Pittsburgh Penguins being the first opponent for that game would be the perfect storm for the NHL.
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