It's more than just a game

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- You walk out into the empty expanse of Michigan Stadium, the ice glistening, flawless in the late morning, and it strikes you again, what a cool idea this whole Winter Classic thing is.

If it's possible for a place that will on New Year's Day afternoon hold 107,000 fans to be intimate, that is the feeling at The Big House. When NHL COO John Collins -- the man who breathed life into the Winter Classic, in 2008 -- walked into the stadium on Monday, he imagined the faces, as close to the action as at any of the previous five Winter Classics.

"I'm imagining how loud it's going to be," Collins told ESPN.com.

You can debate the logic of having six outdoor games this season -- lagging ticket sales for some upper-bowl seats for the Dodger Stadium game between the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks on Jan. 25 and a lack of groundswell of support for the Heritage Classic in Vancouver have brought that debate into sharper focus -- but as the NHL prepares to roll out its signature regular-season event, we are reminded once again of the Winter Classic's unique status, not just in the game but in all of sport.

In the end, the NHL believes it will sell out all six outdoor games -- there are fewer than 10,000 seats left for the second game at Yankee Stadium and a similar number left for the Dodger Stadium game, with four weeks left to sell them -- but they could have sold out Michigan Stadium twice over for Wednesday's game between Detroit and Toronto, Collins said.

Delayed a year because of last season's labor stoppage, there is little to suggest this won't be the most successful of the six Winter Classics. It is different in that the game itself is separate from the other events that have become attached to the Winter Classic banner. The Ilitch family, owners of the Red Wings and the Detroit Tigers, were adamant that downtown Detroit play a starring role in the event, and Comerica Park has or will play host to a series of hockey events, including major junior games, an American Hockey League game and, on Dec. 31, two eagerly anticipated alumni games featuring hockey icons, including former Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman.

This will be the sixth incarnation and enough time has passed that the Winter Classic has its own history, its own catalog of memories and moments. We have seen the picture often enough but it never fails to give us pause, the shot of Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby looking up at the darkening skies above Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., on New Year's Day 2008.

We were skeptical of that first event. In fact, we wrote at the time that the NHL would be best served not engaging in too many of these events. What did we know? On some levels, playing a game in the home of the Buffalo Bills seemed outlandish. To what end? What would be accomplished?

But watching the Buffalo Sabres and the Penguins make their way to the ice surface on that Jan. 1 afternoon, each player taking in the jam-packed stadium, the snow lazily falling out of the late-afternoon sky, each player bearing the same look of -- what was it? Awe? Anticipation? -- you understood that this was something, not just different, but in some ways inspiring.

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.

"People looked at the Winter Classic and said, 'You know what? The business of the NHL can be a lot bigger,'" Collins said.

Somewhere along the line, though, the game has managed to transcend just being big business to become something that resonates with the players, the sponsors and the fans who attend or watch in record numbers every holiday season.

"It's also become a great celebration of the game," Collins said.

Cliche? Maybe. But walking into Michigan Stadium, the ice clean and inviting, and imagining the sights and sounds that will take place here, maybe that's exactly what it is. And, really, what's wrong with that?

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