- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2009

A hockey game played outdoors in the snow could be just a novelty or gimmick, but the NHL is working to give the fledgling Winter Classic a place among the best sports traditions.

The Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings will face off New Year’s Day at venerable Wrigley Field in a game that has already exceeded the buzz created by last year’s flurry-filled contest between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres.

The Penguins won the first Winter Classic last year on a shootout goal by Sidney Crosby before a record 71,000 fans at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y. This year’s game at Wrigley, arguably baseball’s most historic venue, is sold out - with a waiting list for tickets of more than 240,000.

“It’s something that really resonates with people, taking this game - at this level, a regular-season game - outdoors,” said John Collins, the NHL’s chief operating officer. “I think we were able to establish a new ritual and tradition among hockey fans and get them to act like hockey fans and celebrate and enjoy the sport.”

Last year’s Winter Classic challenged the notion of New Year’s Day as a date for college bowl games only. While the Rose Bowl still draws the most viewers during the day, movement of other major bowls to other dates opened a window for the NHL to grab the attention of casual hockey fans. The Penguins and Sabres last year drew 3.7 million viewers to NBC, making it the highest-rated regular-season hockey game since 1996. Many fans were drawn to the scene of players skating through light snow and below-freezing temperatures. The weather forecast Thursday in Chicago called for similar conditions.

“I think there’s no question this is appointment viewing,” said Sam Flood, coordinating producer for NBC Sports. “Year 1, it was novelty. Year 2, it’s more than that. It’s Wrigley Field. It’s two of the most legendary franchises going head-to-head.”

This year, the NHL upgraded its refrigeration system to improve the ice and took advantage of extra time to improve the infrastructure around the rink. Moreover, the league is expected to make more money on the event. Collins said revenue from corporate advertising, including title sponsor Bridgestone, is up more than 50 percent from last year, while licensing revenue has doubled. Ten of the NHL’s major corporate partners will have advertisements specific to the Winter Classic and held promotional events this week.

“The Winter Classic is one of the things that the NHL has done well,” said Howard Bloom, editor of Sports Business News. “I remember thinking that it would never work in Buffalo, but it did. And I think it will be an even bigger success in Chicago.”

For the players, an outdoor game creates challenges.

“If you’re talking about the snow that we had in Buffalo, you know, it can be a huge dilemma for your team,” said Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell, who played in last year’s game with the Sabres. “Last year, the snow that was on the ice, you could not honestly take a slap shot from one end to the other on the ice and get it all the way down there. At times, there’s just so much snow. But both teams played with it, so that was the fun part about it.”

The origins of the Winter Classic stem from the tradition of players learning the sport on frozen ponds. In 2001, college teams Michigan and Michigan State played to a 3-3 tie before more than 75,000 fans at Spartan Stadium. In 2003, the Montreal Canadians beat the Edmonton Oilers 4-3 in subzero temperatures in a game dubbed the “Heritage Classic.” In 2006, Wisconsin beat Ohio State in a game at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field. The first outdoor game involving the NHL was an exhibition game in 1991 between the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers in Las Vegas.

“I think there was a lot of skepticism and a wait-and-see attitude from a lot of the teams in the league, but after last year, everybody’s gotten behind it and really likes it,” Washington Capitals president Dick Patrick said. “It’s like ‘Monday Night Football,’ something that becomes a window for your league. I think it’s great.”

Patrick said the Capitals had casual discussions several years ago about holding an outdoor game in the D.C. area, adding that he generally agrees with the league’s current approach of keeping the game cold-weather cities. NHL officials have not announced plans for future outdoor games, but the new Yankee Stadium is considered a leading candidate for next year’s event. Boston’s Fenway Park also has been mentioned as a future venue.

Collins said the list of teams interested in playing in the game is long; he would not rule out a warm-weather city as a potential site.

“One of the benefits of the refrigeration system we put in is that we can make ice almost anywhere,” he said. “It does open up possibilities in terms of other markets we’d want to look at down the road. Let’s get through [Thursday], but we could play anywhere. We could play a prime-time game at the Rose Bowl.”

NHL officials are being cautious in their approach to the Winter Classic and careful in selecting venues, yet they are confident they have created a concept with limitless potential.

“There’s no reason it’s not going to continue working and be one of the NHL’s success stories,” Bloom said. “And these days, the way the industry is going, using those successes is becoming paramount. It may have been important a year ago; it’s now becoming essential.”

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