When you parse the idea, element by element, you’re left wondering how the NHL, a league whose innovations have included the glow puck and Don Cherry, ever green-lit such an implausible concept:
Hockey. Outdoors. Football stadium. Winter. Buffalo.
Eleven years after the Winter Classic debuted on a snowy New Year’s Day in Buffalo, the reason that midwinter, outdoor hockey games have become so wildly popular remains difficult to decipher.
“It’s just one of those things, an accident that turned into something really fun and successful,” says Jon Miller, the NBC executive who came up with the idea.
Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field, the Flyers will host the Penguins in the 10th edition of the Stadium Series, the NHL’s companion piece to its pioneering Winter Classic.
In a little more than a decade, these two annual winter extravaganzas — and the less-frequent Heritage Classic, involving Canadian clubs — have morphed into a highly anticipated tradition, one that has broadened notions of what a sport season can be.
“No regular-season game in any sport gets the attention our outdoor games do,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said by phone last week. “We’ve taken sports, which is the ultimate reality show, and added another element: namely, the elements.”
Since 2008, Winter Classics have filled iconic venues such as Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, and Notre Dame Stadium. For the 2014 edition at Michigan Stadium, a hockey-record 105,491 fans watched. Classics are the NHL’s all-time, top-rated, regular-season TV shows. The first, at suburban Buffalo in 2008, drew four times as many viewers as that year’s All-Star Game.
The numbers for the younger Stadium Series, whose locales have included the Naval Academy and Coors Field are equally impressive. The Series began in 2014, and its nine games have had an average attendance of more than 54,000, and its ratings are double that of regular-season contests.
Building on that popularity, the NHL has festooned these events, which are meant to evoke a sense of the sport’s pond-hockey roots, with nostalgia: throwback uniforms, appearances by retired legends, tributes to the participating franchises’ pasts.
“We’ve dared to be different, and it’s paid off hugely,” Bettman said. “What we’ve heard from fans, teams, and the markets where we play is that they can’t get enough of these outdoor games.”
Bettman and NHL teams warmly embrace the idea, one that lends hockey some distinction in its perpetual pursuit of the three other major professional sports, but there was an initial reluctance.
“When I proposed it in 2004, everybody thought I was crazy,” said Miller, NBC’s head of sports programming.
The history of the outdoor classics has roots in 2004, the year NBC, which had once dominated college-football bowl coverage, lost its last postseason game, the Gator Bowl. That same year, NBC also struck a new deal with the NHL.
Miller, looking for a hockey centerpiece on New Year’s Day 2005, remembered two dramatic sporting events: the Red Sox’s historic comeback from a 3-0 series deficit to beat the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, and a successful outdoor hockey game between the Oilers and Canadiens in Edmonton.
“College football had ceded New Year’s Day,” Miller said. “All their big games were in prime time, except for the Rose Bowl, which didn’t start until 5. We knew we’d have the afternoons pretty much to ourselves. I thought a fun and cool way to kick off our NHL coverage would be to rekindle the Boston-New York rivalry at Yankee Stadium with the Bruins coming down to play the Rangers.”
Potential hurdles to the radical idea arose immediately.
The NHL, preoccupied with the labor dispute that would kill the 2004-05 season, was skeptical.
“They wanted to know, ‘How we would make ice? What about the weather? Is there a backup plan?'," Miller said. "They felt nobody would watch hockey on New Year’s Day, that college football would dominate the ratings and the headlines.”
The NHL, without the kind of special-events unit it has now, felt incapable of the massive undertaking. Its All-Star Games and Stanley Cup Finals had always been run by local franchises.
Other parties were equally dubious. The imperious Yankees wanted no part of hockey. (“I was laughed out of their office,” Miller said.) The Bruins weren’t interested. The Rangers had commitments to Madison Square Garden. Football and baseball fields were lousy foundations for ice. And the winter weather in the sport’s Northeast base was often terrible.
So, Miller shelved the idea until the spring of 2007. Then, he and new NHL marketing chief John Collins met for lunch in midtown Manhattan.
“I was still pushing," Miller recalled, "but John said, `I’ve got bad news. We went to all the teams up and down the East Coast to get them to host the game. And every team but one said no.’ ”
The lone agreeable franchise was the Sabres. While Buffalo seemed an inhospitable hockey locale for January, that didn’t stop Miller.
“I said, `OK, let’s have Buffalo host Pittsburgh.’ Pittsburgh had this new player named Sidney Crosby. They had great sports fans, great hockey fans. And it’s not that long a drive from Pittsburgh to Buffalo,” Miller said.
NBC allowed Miller to go ahead with the experiment, but only for one year. Pittsburgh’s ownership then came on board. The NHL agreed to form a special-events unit to shepherd the project.
The most encouraging development was the buzz in Buffalo about the Jan. 1, 2008 game. The 41,000 tickets that went on sale Dec. 17 — the rest were held for Sabres fans with season tickets, Buffalo Bills premium-seat holders, and the Penguins — sold out in 30 minutes.
Once the ice was installed, the weather became the chief worry. It turned out relatively mild, with temperatures around freezing and a light snow.
Weather didn’t concern Buffalo fans. A then-record hockey crowd of 71,217 packed Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, home to the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, and an additional 11,500 watched the game at HSBC Arena, the Sabres’ home rink.
“When I drove up to that stadium with our production team and [broadcaster] Bob Costas, the parking lot was packed. It reminded me of an AFC championship game I’d been to there 16 years earlier,” Miller said. “The same kind of atmosphere. People were tailgating, throwing footballs, ready to go. And the snow added something really special. The players loved it, too. They’d grown up playing hockey outside.”
The snow fell throughout the game, enhancing the unique atmosphere. An NBC plane circled overhead, providing rare overhead shots for viewers. The game’s pace was slowed by the precipitation and by an ice surface that had to be attended to at every stoppage.
But overall, said those who played in and witnessed the Penguins’ 2-1 shootout victory, the experience was spectacular.
“There were pinch-me moments throughout the game,” said Jordan Staal, the Carolina center who was then a Penguin. “After you finished a shift, you just looked around, and you started realizing where you were and how cool it was.”
Bettman called it “a great communal experience.”
“Having 72,000 hockey fans together, all braving the snow and elements, it created an atmosphere people found not just exciting but overwhelming,” he said.
With that game’s success, the NHL was off and running. Everyone, including the Rangers and Yankee Stadium, soon jumped on board. By 2014, the game was so popular that the league added the Stadium Series.
“Doing one a year wasn’t enough,” Bettman said. “The feedback we were getting was that people couldn’t get enough of them. But, they’re complicated and expensive to put on, so we’ll do two to four games a year. That keeps it special but gives our fans enough of a taste.”
Three of the subsequent four New Year’s Day Classics were played in baseball stadiums, including 2012 in Citizens Bank Park. The Stadium Series began with three games in four days of January 2014 -- one in Dodger Stadium and a two-game set involving the three New York City-area teams at Yankee Stadium.
“Playing in iconic venues is part of the appeal,” Miller said. “We saw that last year, when the Blackhawks played [the Bruins] in South Bend. There’s no hockey team in Indiana, but you had 77,000 people there. People came from Detroit and all over. They found a way.
“We didn’t want the Winter Classic or Stadium Series to be exhibitions. We wanted them to be meaningful, realistic games that counted in the standings.”
To keep it fresh, the league continues to add fan-friendly features. Last year at Annapolis, for example, the playing area resembled the deck of an aircraft carrier, with a fighter jet parked atop it. Introductions and in-game presentations are tweaked each year.
“Each game is specially designed for that market,” Bettman said. “You’ll see that Saturday night at the Linc. And we’ve done these all over. Next year, we’ll play New Year’s Day at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.”
Now, if only NBC and the NHL could figure out how to implement Miller’s initial idea, a Bruins-Rangers match at Yankee Stadium.