At the Heritage Classic in 2003—the granddaddy of the NHL's New Year's Day Winter Classic—temperatures in Edmonton fell to -1°, cold enough to turn cups of beer into alcoholic Slurpees for the 57,167 hardy souls in Commonwealth Stadium who saw the Oilers and the Canadiens chase a puck that bounced like a tennis ball on the brittle ice. There is hype, and then there is hypothermia.
From that deep freeze emerged a phenomenon. According to the NHL, there were 300,000 more ticket requests than seats sold for the third annual Winter Classic, which will take place on Jan. 1, 2010, at Fenway Park between the Flyers and the Bruins. Reebok has a line of apparel based on the annual game, and this year's match received the ultimate imprimatur when the AP described the Dec. 14 Flyers-Bruins clash as "a preview" of the Winter Classic. In case you don't pay much attention, regular-season NHL games don't get "previewed." Nor do they get ratings like the 2.9 and six share that the Red Wings--Blackhawks game at Wrigley Field drew on NBC last New Year's Day. While last year's Outback Bowl got a better rating (3.1), for the NHL the outdoor game represents steak and sizzle. Says Stars analyst Daryl Reaugh, "The league gets more buzz from the New Year's game than from the Olympics."
Teams and venues clamor for the game. Last week commissioner Gary Bettman said the league wants to stage an additional outdoor match next year, between Canada-based teams, and several European markets have indicated a desire to host an outdoor game.
Although few NHL players have played in a count-in-the-standings match outdoors at any level, the Winter Classic jogs the genetic memory of a sport born on frozen ponds. Says Sabres defenseman Toni Lydman, who did play competitive hockey outdoors in Finland as a child and participated in the 2008 Classic against Pittsburgh, "At New Year's the routine of the regular season kinda hits you, but playing outdoors cheered us all up. Looking around at the stadium ... I couldn't believe we were playing there. When it started to snow [during the game], it brought back memories of looking for the puck on the ice when I was nine. It was perfect."
The NHL can't guarantee flurries, but it can corral iconic venues. The favorite for Jan. 1, 2011, is Yankee Stadium, with the Rangers hosting Alex Ovechkin and friends. Given a choice of the Washington Capitals or the Capital One Bowl, we'll take Ovie.