The buzz remains around the NHL Winter Classic

PHILADELPHIA – The first Winter Classic was the first. It wasn’t the first outdoor NHL game, but it was the first intended to showcase hockey to a large American TV audience. Snow fell. Sidney Crosby scored the shootout winner. What started out as a curiosity ended up picture-postcard perfect.

A view of the scoreboard for the 2012 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.
(Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

The next two were at iconic American venues: Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. It was intriguing enough just to see ice rinks in those particular baseball stadiums – new, fresh twists on old, familiar settings.

The last one was marketed as a matchup of the two faces of the league – Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin – and hyped by a first-of-its-kind, behind-the-scenes HBO miniseries that gave fans a “24/7” perspective they had never had before.

This one … well, if you don’t live in New York or Philadelphia, if you don’t root for the Rangers or Flyers, it might feel like just another one. It isn’t as much of a novelty, the second game with an HBO show, the fifth Winter Classic, the latest of a lineup of outdoor hockey events across North America. Citizens Bank Park, opened in 2004, isn’t historic. The game isn’t even on New Year’s Day this time. It’s Jan. 2, because Jan. 1 falls on a Sunday and the NFL is king.

But if there is less buzz about the Winter Classic elsewhere, you wouldn’t know it here. You wouldn’t have known it Saturday, as the stands fill up with orange, black and white, as little kids in Flyers uniforms tapped their sticks while the Flyers walked to the ice, as 45,808 fans chanted “LET’S GO, FLYERS!” and roared for Philly goals.

For the alumni game.

Here’s the thing: The longer the NHL stages the Winter Classic, the harder it will be to keep it feeling fresh and important from a national perspective, and that’s critical when it comes to TV ratings, corporate sponsorships and marketing potential. The NHL fancies this as a celebration of hockey itself, an event that transcends the teams involved, interests hard-core fans and introduces the sport to others.

But on a local level, it’s like the Heritage Classic or the All-Star Game. It’s fresh and important here this year, and it will be fresh and important wherever it goes next year. The city is excited, even if it’s just because the Flyers are hosting, and the next city will be excited for its team to host, too.

There are two reasons why there is always so much interest in where the next Winter Classic will be before the current Winter Classic even starts: What will the NHL come up with next, and who’s going to get it?

“I think what we always talk about is, ‘So how does it get bigger?’ ” NHL chief operating officer John Collins said Saturday. “We’re trying to balance the scale and how big this game feels in the local market with ultimately how hockey fans outside the market relate to the game and buy into the game during a really long regular season.”

Is it OK with the NHL if that balance tips toward the local as time goes on?

“For us, yeah,” Collins said. “It’s always the way it is. But if you look at any game – you can look at the Super Bowl – the ratings in the participating markets are going to be more significant than national. Now for us, the trick is not only getting the local teams’ fans and then ultimately hockey fans, but also exposing the sport to casual sports fans who maybe haven’t had hockey on their radar for a little while and now they’re starting to hear more about it.”

Fans enjoying Alumni game prior to the NHL Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.
(Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

You can be cynical about the Winter Classic if you want. It’s only a regular-season game, not the Super Bowl or something.

The weather can be a big issue, as it was last year when it rained on Pittsburgh. It harkens back to a heritage most American fans frankly don’t have – playing hockey outdoors. It’s a fantasy.

But that’s exactly what makes this such a remarkable achievement for the NHL. The league has turned what would be another run-of-the-mill regular-season game into something more. The weather cannot be controlled, but so far, there hasn’t been a washout. Even if most Americans never played hockey outdoors, they have shown an appetite for watching it at least once a year. A fantasy becomes reality.

Eventually the NHL will exhaust its list of first-rate, first-time opportunities. But that time should not come in the next few years. The league has plenty of opportunities still to seize.

No. 1 is New York. The league has looked at several different venues ‐ CitiField, MetLife Stadium, the Yale Bowl, even West Point ‐ but the crown jewel, Yankee Stadium, is booked for a college football bowl game for two more years. It would make sense to wait.

Detroit wants the game. Michigan Stadium in nearby Ann Arbor should be the leading contender – offering the potential spectacle of more than 110,000 fans – but Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch also owns the Detroit Tigers, who play at Comerica Park in downtown Detroit.

Money is the main issue. The Big House would make sense only if sold out – empty seats would be the opposite of a spectacle – and the University of Michigan would want a cut. How much could you charge to make sure you fill the stands and the coffers for everyone? Could you charge more and make more at Comerica Park, even though the stadium is less than half the size?

A Michigan spokesman declined a request to interview athletic director Dave Brandon. Collins pointed out Ilitch’s long-time commitment to downtown Detroit and desire for a new hockey arena.

“I think they understand how they could use it in Detroit to do what they want to do in terms of getting the new arena built and everything else,” Collins said. “If we were to do something in the future in Detroit, I think what the plan is for downtown Detroit would be a big factor.”

Washington wants the game. Minnesota wants the game. The list goes on, including novel ideas like playing under the sun in Miami.

“I think the commissioner has heard from just about everybody,” Collins said.

NBC might be willing to include a Canadian team for the first time, too. Collins said the network had strong feelings about ratings when the Winter Classic began – two American TV markets made too much sense – but the event has grown to the point where one American city might be enough.

“I think if we could figure out the right matchup, maybe it would work, but we haven’t talked about any of that yet,” Collins said. Would an American TV audience watch, say, the Toronto Maple Leafs face the Detroit Red Wings?

The NHL must be careful. There have been internal discussions about allowing more American outdoor games in addition to the Winter Classic so more markets can get in on a good thing. But there can be too much of a good thing. If the novelty is already wearing off nationally, imagine if the Winter Classic wasn’t the NHL’s only American outdoor game.

“I think it’s a balance,” Collins said. “I think the business case is still being made in terms of how many of these games can you do and keep it special.”

The NHL faces challenges, too. As good as the ice-making technology has become, it’s still tough to freeze water well enough in the warmth of southern markets. As much as the league might like to go west, the 1 p.m. ET face-off remains key for TV. As much as the league might want to make every team happy, some simply draw better ratings than others.

How long can the NHL keep the Winter Classic enough of a novelty nationally? We’ll see.

But there is a reason why so many teams want to host one, and this is it: As the sun set here Saturday, the city skyline lit up in the distance and the ice lit up below. Although it was only a bunch of old guys skating slowly in the middle of a baseball field and today’s players were nowhere to be seen, the stands were still pretty much full of orange, black and white in the third period. The fans were still chanting “LET’S GO, FLYERS!”

There was a buzz here, and the Winter Classic still seemed pretty cool.

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Nicholas J. Cotsonika is a hockey writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Nicholas a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Jan 1, 2012