It took 10 years for the NHL Winter Classic to make its New York City debut, but the long, icy road to Monday’s game between the Rangers and Sabres at Citi Field actually dates to before the inaugural Classic in Buffalo on Jan. 1, 2008.
The original idea was hatched in the mid-2000s, when a plan to bring the first Winter Classic to Yankee Stadium was all but laughed out of the Bronx.
Jon Miller, NBC Sports’ president of programming and a founding father of the event, envisioned a game that would pit the Bruins against the Rangers at Yankee Stadium on Jan. 1, 2005, to celebrate NBC’s new partnership with the NHL.
The league had enjoyed success with the Heritage Classic in Edmonton in 2003, its first outdoor regular-season game, and the Yankees and Red Sox had the New York-Boston rivalry operating at peak fever.
NBC saw a programming opening as college football began to cede its traditional control of New Year’s Day with the BCS Championship Game taking root later in early January.
The NHL initially was lukewarm to the idea, but NBC quietly reached out to the Bruins and Rangers, with the former more eager than the latter.
“The Rangers knew there were some lease issues with the Garden and the City of New York, but before we knew all that, we had reached out to the folks at Yankee Stadium, to Lonn [Trost, the Yankees’ chief operating officer] and Randy [Levine, the club president],’’ Miller said. “They were nice and they met with me, but they just said, ‘We’re not putting on a hockey game. This is The House that Ruth Built. You’re not going to get a hockey game in here on New Year’s Day. We shut this place down.’ They were also in the process of starting to think about a new stadium and whatnot. They just didn’t really embrace it.”
The 2005 game never materialized because that season was erased by a lockout, and nothing came of it in 2006 because the league did not have a special events group in place.
The idea finally came to fruition when John Collins joined the NHL as an executive in 2006 and worked with Miller to secure the first iteration of the Classic in . . . Buffalo?
“John understood the value and kind of got what we were trying to do and he canvassed all the potential teams,” Miller said. “The only team that raised their hand that was willing to host the game was Buffalo.
“I said, ‘Great, we’ll go to Buffalo. Buffalo is a great sports town. Let’s have them play the Penguins because Sidney Crosby was coming.’ And that was it . . . Buffalo turned out to be an unbelievable venue.”
Famously, a light snow that day in Orchard Park made for TV-friendly visuals, and a marketing star was born.
“Everything worked out about as well as we could have ever hoped,” Miller said. “Now, I don’t think any of us ever envisioned it would become the event it’s become. We thought it would work well for a year or two based on all the problems we had getting a team to raise their hands for that first game. I was not optimistic we were going to continue to get people who were willing to be able to play.”
The opposite was true, as volunteers came out of the woodwork. That did not include the Yankees, but it was not because they did not come to see the appeal of the event. It was because starting in 2010, they hosted the Pinstripe Bowl during the last week of December, making it impossible to convert the Stadium from college football to hockey in the required time.
The Stadium hosted two games featuring the Rangers vs. the Devils and Islanders (both were the home teams) in the week leading up to Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium in 2014, but never a Winter Classic.
Miller said if not for the Pinstripe Bowl commitment, the Yankees “definitely” would have hosted one by now. But he still was determined to bring the game to the city.
“I’m excited to finally have it in New York,” he said. “I think it’s a great way to celebrate. New York City is the center of the country for the most part on New Year’s Eve, and it extends the party until the next day.”
Generally speaking, football stadiums provide better sight lines for makeshift hockey rinks than do baseball stadiums, but Miller said Citi Field sets up well, and the game has been a tough ticket despite a forecast of bitter cold.
One quirk of playing the game in New York is that the Sabres, not the Rangers, will be the home team. The Sabres gave up one of their 41 home dates in Buffalo to play in the Classic.
The Rangers are contractually obligated to play all of their home games at Madison Square Garden lest they risk losing a lucrative property tax exemption. Because the Sabres are the home team at Citi Field, the Rangers skated around that obligation.