Winter Classic an overnight success

Sat, 01 Jan 09:53:00 2011

The Winter Classic is just one of 2,460 regular season games on the NHL schedule yet the annual outdoor showcase has quickly eclipsed the Stanley Cup as the league's signature event.

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What began as a one-off tribute to hockey's outdoor roots has quickly grown into a marketing colossus, a New Year's Day tradition that has brought the NHL unprecedented exposure.

"We treat this game special," said John Collins, the NHL's chief operating officer. "While it is just one regular season game we treat it like it is the Super Bowl or the World Series or the Daytona 500.

"We do that because we think it is just a great way to celebrate hockey."

The New Year's Day clash between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals will start at 8 pm local time due to rain, the first time the event's start time has been altered since its inception four years ago - but it will still be played in front of a sold-out crowd of over 68,000 at Heinz Field.

The contest will bring together two of hockey's most dynamic talents; Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, Canada's Olympic hero and the NHL's leading scorer with 65 points, against the Capitals' menacing Russian sniper Alexander Ovechkin.

While this will be only the fourth Winter Classic, each of the previous three have raised the bar a little higher.

The first was played in 2008 in Buffalo in a Christmas card setting where Crosby scored the shootout winner while a steady snow covered the sold-out crowd at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

The last two Winter Classics melded baseball and hockey tradition as the NHL held the game in Chicago's Wrigley Field and Boston's Fenway Park, two of America's most storied sporting shrines.

In hockey-obsessed Canada such wintry images are part of the country's cultural identity. A scene of children playing pond hockey can be found on the Canadian $5 bill while backyard ice rinks are as common as swimming pools in Florida.

In the US sporting traditions revolve around baseball, the country's national pastime, but the romance of the NHL's outdoor game has strangely resonated with Americans.

"By the time the Stanley Cup is played the only people interested tend to be a number of Canadians and whatever two American cities are involved," hockey historian and author Roy McGregor said.

"This so called meaningless game, a two-point game held in the middle of winter, it has become hockey's Super Bowl, its World Series, its World Cup yet it isn't a championship of any sort.

"It's kind of a Norman Rockwell moment, it's all about sentimentalism which really is at the core of most sports.

"It's touched a chord."

The game has grown way beyond sentimental appeal into big business. The single game is expected to pour $23 million into the local Pittsburgh economy and cities are lined up at NHL headquarters for a chance to host a Winter Classic.

Tire maker Bridgestone recently signed on as title sponsor for five more years while commercial time on NBC has sold-out and sponsorship revenue has grown by 20 percent.

Tickets to this season's game sold out quickly while Winter Classic merchandise has been flying off the shelves with over 38,000 jerseys already sold.

The NHL has invested heavily in state-of-the-art ice-making equipment to help improve the product but no amount of technology can control the weather, which is threatening to rain on the league's New Year's Day party.

Still, the biggest challenge facing the NHL is what to do each year for an encore and maintaining the novelty of the outdoor event.

"You become a victim of your own success when you continually raise the bar so the challenge is how do you do it better year in and year out," said Sam Kennedy, president of the Fenway Sports Group and the man behind the Fenway Winter Classic.

"I think the way they can continue to grow it is by going to other great markets.

"They have really just scratched the surface ... it will be interesting to see what they could do in a warm climate.


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