How hockey outdoors became a 'Classic'

Crews work on the ice rink in preparation

Crews work on the ice rink in preparation for NHL hockey's Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park. (Dec. 28, 2011) (Credit: AP)

There were several very good reasons the NHL turned to the Buffalo area to stage its first outdoor New Year's Day game in 2008.

The weather figured to be conducive. The local populace enjoys hockey more than most.

Oh, and this: "[The NHL] called me and said, 'Look, the only city that will do it is Buffalo,' '' recalled Jon Miller, NBC Sports' president of programming. "I said: 'Sold! We'll go to Buffalo!' ''

And now? Any city that recognizes ice in its natural form clamors to host a Winter Classic, a runaway success beyond anyone's reasonable expectations late last decade.

When the Rangers face the Flyers at Citizens Bank Park Monday , they will do so as one part of a multi-week extravaganza including everything from special jerseys to an alumni game to a weekly spinoff series on HBO, "24/7."

In short, "it's a celebration of hockey,'' as NHL chief operating officer John Collins put it.

Collins is one of the two lead architects of the event along with Miller, whose interest in staging an outdoor game dates to 2004, when he envisioned a rematch of sorts of the Yankees-Red Sox ALCS. "I had this crazy idea that why don't we get the Bruins to come down and play the Rangers at Yankee Stadium and do it on New Year's Day?'' he recalled.

By that point, NBC was getting out of the college bowl business, and college football was on its way to ceding what used to be its showcase holiday by moving the biggest games beyond Jan. 1.

NBC was up for it, as were the Bruins and Rangers. The league was wary of the economics but willing to consider it.

But Miller recalled, "The Yankees said, 'No way, we're not going to play hockey in Yankee Stadium; that's crazy.' ''

The lockout of 2004-05 rendered the idea moot, but after it ended, Miller "kept pushing and pushing it.'' Then Collins arrived from the NFL in late 2006.

"I literally was at the league for 10 minutes and got a call from Jon saying we have a window on Jan. 1 and we'd love to do something with you,'' Collins said.

Around that time, Collins noticed how many league offices featured pictures of the NHL's first regular-season outdoor game, between the Canadiens and Oilers in Edmonton in 2003.

"I said, 'It looks fantastic; how come we have not done it again?' '' he said. "But there was no business model. That was ultimately the trick, working with the commissioner to figure out a sustainable model that allows us to do it every year, not just as a one-off. That was the magic.''

Actually, a big part of the magic was that first game in Orchard Park (which was called the "Ice Bowl'' by many in the Buffalo area), when the Sabres and Penguins went to a shootout clinched by Sidney Crosby.

Also, crucially: It snowed.

"The way it looked on television had this snow-globe effect,'' NBC host Bob Costas said. "It was so compelling and so different from what people were used to seeing that there was a buzz.''

Mike "Doc'' Emrick, who called the game, said, "In the first intermission, we see [on radar] this enormous white mass northwest of Buffalo, and in a more positive way, it's like the movie 'Poseidon.'

"You see this coming and you know it is going to get there, but when? Then the ghost of Jim Kelly arises and here comes all this sleet in the second period and the snow in the third.''

The event was a sensation in the hockey community and a heartwarming novelty outside it. Other cities soon were asking for turns to host.

Years 2 and 3 brought visits to iconic baseball stadiums in Chicago and Boston. Then in '11, rain in Pittsburgh pushed the Classic into prime time. Even that had its benefits.

Said Costas: "Under the lights at Heinz Field, that was so striking and televised so well that people, even if they were just channel-surfing, stopped because it was kind of arresting.''

Apparently so. The average of 4.5 million viewers was the most for a regular-season NHL game since 1975.

From the start, players have embraced the Classic as a nostalgic nod to the outdoor games of their youths.

Former Rangers star Adam Graves, who played in the Alumni Game on Saturday, never got to play in the Winter Classic itself. But one of the favorite moments of his career remains a 1991 outdoor preseason game against the Kings.

"I'll never forget going onto the ice and looking up and seeing the stars,'' Graves said. "It takes you back to when you were a kid.''

Well, not exactly. The game was played in the Caesars Palace parking lot in Las Vegas. In September. It was 80 degrees at game time, and grasshoppers kept jumping onto the ice.

The NHL has not said where the 2013 game will be. Collins said it likely won't be New York but that the city is on the future wish list.

Yankee Stadium appears to be the preferred venue, but the late-December Pinstripe Bowl presents a scheduling problem. Yankees COO Lonn Trost said on WFAN this past week that the team and the NHL have discussed hosting an outdoor game that is not part of the Classic series.

Miller marvels at how far the game has come, evidence of which he finds at every turn. He spoke last week on the "Saturday Night Live'' set in NBC's Studio 8H, where the NHL held a promotional event.

A year earlier, the same event was held in a conference room in the NHL offices.

After decades as the misfit of major American team sports, hockey has become a cool kid, at least for one day early each year. (This year's game is on Jan. 2 to avoid conflicting with an NFL Sunday.)

Miller recalled that for the inaugural game, the Penguins were chosen in part because they were close enough to Buffalo for their fans to help fill the stadium -- a consideration that seems quaint today.

"[Collins] said, 'OK, we'll try it,' '' Miller said. "And five years later, here we are.''

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