THE SUPER BOWL created its own weekend. March Madness now owns its month the way baseball owns October. The National Hockey League, with its fan base fragmented across two nations, shares its most exciting time with the NBA's most exciting time and the birth of a new baseball season.

So how do you grow your sport amid dimensions as tight as the old Boston Garden? You never leave, that's how. You announce the latest site for your newest, coolest gimmick, the "Winter Classic" in the middle of the summer, celebrate the start of your season with a brand-name event amid football season, sprinkle nationally televised game events in each month of your season.

You build what NHL chief operating officer John Collins calls, "a calendar that our advertising partners can understand - so they can dedicate their resources towards the NHL."

"Faceoff, Showdown, Winter Classic," Collins said during an exclusive interview with three Daily News writers earlier this month. "All-Star Game comes right on the heels of that, and last year we had the Heritage Classic, which is the outdoor game in Canada. And then you're into the Stanley Cup push, and, after that, we have the awards and draft, and you're into the next year."

The NHL now has a name for its first regular-season games. The inaugural "Faceoff" in October featured a festival atmosphere surrounding Winnipeg's first game in 15 years, later switching from its in-house NHL Network to Versus to cover the championship banner-raising in Boston before the Flyers-Bruins game. Seizing on the slimmest of programming openings, "Showdown" aired on the Friday after Thanksgiving on NBC, the earliest an NHL game has been broadcast nationally in 20 years.

The axis of all this, the Winter Classic, was really its catalyst. The NHL has experienced 5 straight years of growth. The Classic is in its fifth year of existence. From the moment snow began falling over its inaugural effort in Buffalo 5 years ago, the NHL had finally tapped into a vein it had been searching for since Peter Puck.

"Before they even dropped the puck to start the game, you instantly felt that this was something different and there was something really cool about this," NBC's Bob Costas recently told the NHL Network. "All of us at NBC, everyone in the stands, and, most importantly, all of the players understood that this was something not just out of the ordinary, but this was something that was going to be tremendously successful and really hit the spot."

Said Collins: "The advertising community has really been attracted to the NHL as a result of this game. They are now finding many more ways to spend money."

Once harshly criticized for perceived short-sightedness, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman these days wears the relaxed smile his old boss, David Stern, used to have. That fifth straight season of revenue growth finished at $2.9 billion last year. Sponsorship sales rose 33 percent in gross earnings last year alone, which included the biggest beer deal in its history with MolsonCoors and Miller Coors. The All-Star Game is now the Discover All-Star Game. Canada's answer to the Winter Classic is called The Tim Horton's Heritage Classic.

Bridgestone has its grip on the Winter Classic, which continues to build on that first snowy day in Buffalo. Last year's game at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field between the Penguins and Washington Capitals was seen by 4.5 million viewers - the most watched NHL regular-season game in 36 years according to NBC, despite a last-minute switch of its starting time from the afternoon to prime time because of rain.

That spike reflects - perhaps drives - a spike in interest in the sport, most notably by American fans in non-traditional markets - a Rubik's Cube for the league in its previous infiltration efforts. Of the top five cities to claim the highest ratings growth last year, three - San Antonio, Texas (67 percent); Dayton, Ohio (60 percent); and Kansas City, Mo. (50 percent) - don't have a local NHL team to follow. Among the top 12, that number swells to seven - including Baltimore (38 percent); Albuquerque-Santa Fe, N.M. (29 percent); Knoxville, Tenn. (25 percent); and Louisville, Ky. (25 percent).

The Stanley Cup finals last season, despite the presence of small-market Vancouver, set ratings records as well.

"There's an event-quality to it," Costas said of the Winter Classic. "It brings in not just hard-core fans, but it brings in casual fans. The raw rating is very good for a regular-season game, but, beyond that, it raises the profile of the league in a very positive way. There is a buzz in the aftermath. Franchises vie to be the host of the actual event."

And don't think the other sports aren't noticing. The NBA is said to be mulling an outdoor event. North Carolina and Michigan State opened their college basketball seasons playing on an aircraft carrier. MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., won the rights to host the 2014 Super Bowl.

In the meantime, though, the NHL has bragging rights to "the ultimate reality TV show" as Bettman dubbed Monday's event. Technology is not advanced enough to hold the game below the Mason-Dixon Line yet, but that day may be coming, Collins said. There even has been talk of one day holding four outdoor games on New Year's Day, or its equivalent, further obliterating the college bowl landscape that once owned - but ceded - the day.

"That didn't come from me," Collins said with a wry smile - his boss, Bettman, a seat away.

But Collins did say this: "I look at the brand equity of the Stanley Cup. It's right there with the Olympics, right there with the World Series. It's right there with the Super Bowl. And yet when you see it on a viewership level, we're not getting that kind of lift. And that's not just in North America, but Europe, as well, where hockey is a very important sport. So what we're focused on is how to raise the bar across all those events, and, more importantly, the Stanley Cup playoffs."

In its brief but lucrative lifetime, the Winter Classic has done just that.

"It is something that captures attention for more than just hockey fans, and that's a good thing," Bettman said. "But it also gives our fans, our existing fans, another reason to connect to and celebrate the game and that is as important as anything else that we're doing."

Send email to donnels@phillynews.com.

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