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Rain could put a damper on Winter Classic

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Rain could put a damper on Winter Classic
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The Bruins will host the Flyers at Fenway Park. Rain is predicted

BOSTON – There wasn't a cloud in the glorious blue skies overhead at Fenway Park at 1 p.m. on Wednesday. The howling winds that made walking down Yawkey Way a challenge the night before weren't even as strong as a whisper at midday.

The treacherous glare that reflected off the ice surface at Wrigley Field during the days leading up to the last Winter Classic wasn't nearly as noticeable on the floor of Fenway, probably because this rink appears closer to shade from behind home plate of the nation's oldest Major League Baseball park compared to the shelter provided by No. 2 in Chicago.

Yes, this was exactly the kind of day weather-wise the National Hockey League is hoping for Friday when the Boston Bruins host the Philadelphia Flyers. Unfortunately, it's not the kind of day the league is going to get if the forecast is anywhere close to accurate.

Rain is predicted, with between 70-80 percent certainty from 1-4 p.m. ET on New Year's Day. The league was encouraged because the percentage dropped slightly, and the forecast calls for it to be a bit cooler than earlier guesses. It's still not seen as cold enough to keep the rain away, however, and that could be a major problem.

The Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres experienced snow two years ago at Ralph Miller Stadium in western New York, and that was a good thing for viewers watching the first of three consecutive New Year's Day outdoor games. What the intrigued audience couldn't sense in 2008 was how strong the wind was, especially as the day and game wore on.

The weather in Chicago last year was perfect in terms of playing conditions a dry, overcast day with a temperature of 32 degrees that barely changed as the afternoon progressed.

But any amount of unfrozen wet stuff on Friday will play havoc with the event, which has only one second chance – the same 1 p.m. opening faceoff time on Saturday – or it's scrap the whole Fenway experience. The Flyers are set to play in Ottawa on Sunday afternoon, while the Bruins are at Madison Square Garden to visit the Rangers on Monday.

The NHL doesn't want to wait until Friday once 37,000 or so have descended upon the frozen yard to announce a postponement, so if the forecast takes a turn for the worse, the league will make a decision on Thursday – and rescheduling the game Saturday is the only option.

Maybe that's why the league chose Wednesday to talk about the event moving forward instead of dwelling on the possibility of the first negative thing to come out of this novelty. John Collins, the NHL's chief operations officer, admitted "protecting the gate" – as in the paying customer – is very important.

Collins also talked about how there's really no hiding the fact that this will become an annual event, not that it's a surprise considering the uncharacteristic rave reviews the league has received for its innovation. During a recent board of governors meeting in Pebble Beach, Calif., Collins outlined the process for teams to make their bids to host future games.

"We want the clubs to understand what goes into staging the game as well as hosting the game," Collins said. "It wasn't intended to be a best pick wins. It doesn't happen that way for the Super Bowl and it wasn't that way for the Olympics as Chicago found out.

"It's just part of trying to get ahead so we can plan, so our partners can plan. We want to be more efficient the way we plan and run these sorts of events," he added.

Collins has been approached formally and informally with interest from most of the teams in the league since the conclusion of the Pittsburgh-Buffalo game. He expects similar responses when the league extends bids for the next one the second week of January.

"I think the interest will be across the league," said Collins, who added the league will review those accepting bids after the Olympic break and make a decision thereafter. "We'll look at each individual market and see where this fits best. Sometimes it might be an NFL stadium, a college stadium or a baseball stadium. Or maybe it'll be just an iconic sight that you wouldn't think of."

Ah, doesn't that let the mind run wild? Since Yankee Stadium is more interested in hosting college football for the next seven New Year's or so, how about using some real imagination and having the Capitals play host on the National Mall, the Sharks entertain on Alcatraz or the Kings welcome an opponent on the beach?

OK, before we get carried away, Collins recognized weather is the key variable that the league cannot control when playing outside. The rink and refrigeration system the league purchased after Buffalo and before Chicago comes with a learning curve, and NHL ice expert Dan Craig is learning what his expensive equipment can do in Boston, where the rink has been up longer than the previous two locales.

"It's part of the consideration in terms of weather patterns for the host cities," Collins said. "It's part of the scheduling process, so we know we have a weather date."

And Saturday's date for this year's event is one he certainly hopes doesn't come into play.