JOHN COLLINS will tell you the idea grew from seeing the same picture on several walls in the NHL offices. NBC's Jon Miller, the other man credited with creating the Winter Classic, remembers watching people wrapped like fur trappers in Edmonton way back in 2003 for an outdoor NHL game between the Oilers and Canadiens and thinking, "Yankee Stadium."

But the real heroes in the amazing growth of the Winter Classic reside not in the New York offices of Collins' NHL, or cross town in the offices at 30 Rock, where Miller is a vice president of sports. No, the real heroes are the Einsteins who first invented the concept of the Bowl Championship Series, then moved their most significant games off New Year's Day, or its legal holiday equivalent.

To a league seeking to infiltrate American culture, it was the equivalent of volunteering to serve a game misconduct. Collins, 50, had barely unpacked his boxes when Miller called him with this idea he had been sitting on since he got that glimpse of the 2003 Heritage Classic, played in Edmonton between the Oilers and Canadiens in late November amid temperatures barely over freezing. That's the picture Collins kept seeing on office walls, too, specifically that of NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

"A celebration of the game," Collins said recently. "We wanted an event that was a celebration of all that is hockey . . . We've put a lot of effort into making it a celebration for all fans, to make it a big hockey holiday in the U.S. and in Canada and not just the towns involved."

NBC, which for 37 years had aired the Rose Bowl on that date and had a new contract with the NHL, was looking for some programming. Miller had pitched the idea to the league as far back as 2004, but it evaporated via labor strife and resistance from some owners. Collins' arrival breathed ice back into the idea, and it became a reality on Jan. 1, 2008, when the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins met amid a snowstorm in Ralph Wilson Stadium.

It was pretty on television, a mess at ground level.

"The ultimate reality show," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said.

The game had to be stopped to shovel off snow. Cracks appeared on the surface of what was then a rented rink. "There were a lot of uh-oh moments," Daly said. "If it was even 5 degrees warmer, all that snow would have been rain. We couldn't have played."

But it wasn't. That blizzard in Buffalo in the inaugural 2008 game between the Sabres and Penguins, anticipated before the game and delivered during it, stopped thumbs in mid-channel-surf click, creating instant credibility to the game's name, and a postgame buzz that excited those at the top of a league once scorned for its unyielding ways.

In an exclusive interview with three Daily News reporters in the NHL offices a few weeks ago, Bettman bristled at that description. Since that game, the NHL has staged successful and memorable Classics in Chicago, Boston and last year, Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, where rain pushed it from a day game into a cool sight under the lights. Ratings have increased with each one and the league has experienced unprecedented revenue growth.

"Take a look at what we've done with this game," said the commissioner. "Whether it was two referees or the four-on-four overtime, the shootout, or the rule changes we made coming out of the work stoppage. You know, we sometimes get stereotyped by traditional media in a certain way. But we are extraordinarily progressive. On the issue of concussions, going back to study groups as far back as 1997, this ownership group has been much more aggressive than they get credit for."

Which explains why, when he was later asked if the event had changed the sport's image, "in your eyes," he shot back. "No, the question is, 'Has this event changed the sport's image in your eyes?' "

The answer is a resounding yes, of course. Once routinely criticized for a perceived lack of vision and copycat creativity, the NHL is perhaps the most progressive professional sports league these days. Its use of digital media, a marketing plan based on seasonal high points, all point to COO Collins, who came to the NHL in 2006 with a big reputation for big events, ideas and sponsorship deals worth an additional $1.9 billion.

While with NFL Films, Collins helped create "Hard Knocks," the precursor to HBO's riveting "24/7" series, which in the last two winters has featured the NHL's Winter Classic combatants. Like the Classic, the HBO series has won over even those most wary of its concept. Capitals general manager George McPhee told Bettman after last year's series that it was one of the best experiences he has ever had in all the time he's been in the game.

"And he's about as traditional as there is in the game," said Daly.

What McPhee discovered - what many fans, casual or otherwise have, too - is that hockey has under-told and undersold itself all these years. Through its infiltration into their inner sanctums and examination of its written and unwritten laws, the HBO series has dispelled the notion that its players are one-dimensional clichés. Or that those who operate it are either.

"In all honesty, I think this got bigger, faster than anybody could have predicted," Bettman said. "It was always going to be a big event, but the fact that we now own New Year's Day - or the legal holiday equivalent - I'm not sure anybody could have predicted that it would have catapulted that quickly. Which is really a testament to what the event has become. How it's been created, how it's been marketed and promoted and dressed up. And, maybe, to a little luck. The snow for the first one certainly didn't hurt."

"We still feel we can activate better," Collins said. "We still think we have room to grow to make this thing truly a hockey holiday."