It's more than just a game

By the time Crosby ended that first Winter Classic in a shootout, the snow creating a lasting image not just for the 70,000 in the stands but for the vast television audience (even as it made the game almost unplayable), the NHL heard the tumblers click on a winner.

Having come from the NFL, Collins knew the football experience and he felt fans would embrace the idea of an outdoor game in Buffalo. But the question was whether they could produce ice of a quality that it wouldn't destroy the integrity of a regular-season game.

"For all of the romance and the atmosphere, the snow, we were probably not where we needed to be in terms of the quality of the ice," Collins said.

The following year, after the NHL invested in a portable ice-making system that created a far superior surface at Wrigley Field, the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings delivered a rollicking follow-up. The first shifts of that game disproved the notion that this was just a gimmick and proved that the NHL could, in fact, enjoy the spectacle without sacrificing the core elements of the game.

Critics suggest that the idea of packaging these outdoor contests as a return to the game's roots is a stretch, given that the games are held in incongruent locations such as football and baseball stadiums. Fair enough, but watch the players and their families when they first see the rink and it's hard not to connect the moment to something more innocent.

Said Collins, for people who have never been to one of these games, it's just an outdoor game. But for those who have been in attendance, it's something more. It's that simple.

At the third Winter Classic, at Fenway Park, Boston Bruins president and Hall of Famer Cam Neely, sitting above the Green Monster, talked about the marriage of the iconic stadium and the iconic hockey team and what it meant to him to be part of what was, for him, a seminal event. Later, Marco Sturm would give the hometown Bruins an overtime victory.

The next year, the NHL would face its most critical test in terms of the weather delaying the game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. And then late in the second period at Heinz Field, David Steckel would clip Crosby, starting what would be a long, dark period for the Penguins star, who would battle concussion issues for most of the following two seasons.

In 2012, the Winter Classic traveled to Philadelphia, where 48,000 fans gathered to watch New York Rangers and Flyers alumni play a game that featured longtime adversaries Bob Clarke and Eric Lindros sharing space. The Winter Classic game itself was as dramatic as any, Daniel Briere being denied on a last-minute penalty shot as the Rangers held on for a one-goal victory.

Next year, America's capital will play host to the Winter Classic, with the game likely to be held at Nationals Park.

In the beginning, the Winter Classic stood as a symbol of the league's determination to grow beyond the narrow walls that had enclosed the game for so long. The Winter Classic was the first tangible evidence of that plan for sponsors, fans, television network officials and the media. At the time, the NHL was generating $2.2 billion in revenues and only 6 percent of that was generated nationally. Now, the league is a $4 billion business and between 20 and 22 percent of the revenue is national.

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