How the Winter Classic snowballed

Posted: January 01, 2012

To appreciate the genesis of the Winter Classic and how an NHL game between the Flyers and New York Rangers is going to be played in a South Philadelphia baseball stadium Monday afternoon, one needs to go back to Nov. 22, 2003.

That's when more than 57,000 frozen fans attended the Heritage Classic in Edmonton, Alberta, where the first regular-season outdoor NHL game was held. The Montreal Canadiens defeated the hometown Oilers, 4-3, in temperatures that dropped below zero.

"Walking out there for the first time was pretty amazing," Edmonton forward Shawn Horcoff said after the game. "Looking in the stands and seeing that many people was such a big thrill, something that will probably never happen again."

He was wrong about the latter part.

That matchup in Edmonton planted a seed. The NHL, sensing that this was a way to attract even the casual fan (and make money), got involved.

John Collins, the league's chief operating officer, said he became intrigued by the outdoor game after seeing photos of the jam-packed Edmonton football stadium with a hockey rink in the middle of it. At the time of that 2003 game, Collins did not work for the NHL.

When NBC said it was looking for something to replace the Gator Bowl on its network, Collins got more involved. He put together a business plan that included attracting advertisers, and, in 2008, the inaugural NHL Winter Classic was held in Buffalo, where 71,217 fans watched the Sabres drop a 2-1 shootout decision to Pittsburgh.

The Edmonton outdoor game, the brainchild of Oilers president Patrick LaForge, and the fact that NBC had a window for programming, played major roles in creating the Winter Classic, Collins said.

"And the commissioner was tremendously supportive," he said, referring to Gary Bettman. "There was a whole team of people involved in getting this off the ground."

In the 2008 Winter Classic at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium, snow added to the merriment. It made it feel as if the players were carefree little boys skating on a neighborhood pond.

The snow "clearly romanticized the event and gave it a snow-globe effect," Collins said. "It made it look phenomenal on TV. There were some issues for the ice crew, but it was definitely part of the charm and part of the reason even casual fans actually stopped when they were channel-surfing. It was incredibly compelling - a phenomenal celebration of hockey."

Since that game in Buffalo, the Winter Classic has been held in Chicago, Boston, and Pittsburgh. TV ratings have climbed each year, Collins said. Last year's matchup between the Penguins and Washington had an average of 4.5 million TV viewers in prime time - the most for a regular-season NHL game in 36 years.

The Winter Classic is also a bonanza for the city that hosts the game. Last year's game in Pittsburgh, for instance, brought $22 million in direct spending to the region, according to David Morehouse, the Penguins CEO.

As for Monday's game at Citizens Bank Park, the weather forecast is calling for partly cloudy skies with temperatures in the 40s and a 30 percent chance of rain.

"There's a slight chance of precipitation, either rain or snow," Collins said. "We've had every kind of weather imaginable over the years. The operation guys have learned to deal with it."

Last year's game in Pittsburgh was moved from the afternoon to night because of rain. If it rains during the day Monday in Philadelphia, the game could be moved to the night. If it rains all day, it will be played Tuesday.

If it snows? Well, that would just add to the excitement - for the players and TV viewers.

Collins is proud of the impact the game has had since its inception, and he hopes an outdoor NHL game on New Year's Day (or thereabouts) becomes a part of Americana.

HBO's 24/7, which began last year and follows the teams leading up to the Winter Classic, has piqued interest in the game, Collins said.

As a former NFL executive, Collins worked to help the football reality series Hard Knocks get started in 2001. He also played a role in getting HBO interested in producing 24/7, a show, Collins said, that "introduces viewers to story lines and personalities, so by the time the game comes around, they like the players and feel like they know them and want to watch them."


Contact staff writer Sam Carchidi at scarchidi@phillynews.com, or @BroadStBull on Twitter.

 

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