PITTSBURGH - My knee-jerk reaction on outdoor hockey games: Enough already. The NHL has taken away the uniqueness of the games by playing too many of these made-for-TV events each season.
That was the cynic in me.
But after talking to players and fans leading up to Saturday night's Stadium Series matchup between the Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins at windy Heinz Field, my tune has changed.
The players love them, and never get tired of playing in the great outdoors and going back to their innocent days as kids.
Three years ago, there were six outdoor games. That was the peak. This season, there were four.
"Six is a lot, but at the same time they generate revenue, and obviously that's what the NHL wants," winger Brayden Schenn said before the Flyers faced the Penguins. "From a player's perspective, not many get a chance to play in one in their whole career, so it's pretty cool when you do. I don't think the players are complaining, as far as having a chance to play in one."
Most of the players had their families at the game. Center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare paid for his mother to fly in from France. Goalie Michal Neuvirth's parents traveled from the Czech Republic to watch their son play a game that had the same value, points wise, as a November matchup against Arizona.
The fans adore these outdoor games, too. In a matchup celebrating the 50-year anniversary of each franchise, more than 65,000 attended Saturday's game - the biggest crowd to ever watch the Flyers play - and that included several thousand who traveled from the Philadelphia area. (The crowd would have been even bigger if Penn State had not priced itself out of the competition.)
The Flyers may be having a disappointing season, but their fans have continually brought their 'A' game. Does any fan base travel to games around North America more than the Flyers'? Wherever the Flyers play, whether it's the West Coast, Florida, Montreal, Nashville, or even Western Canada, there are thousands of fans in orange jerseys.
Say this about Flyers fans: They are incredibly loyal when you consider this franchise hasn't won a Stanley Cup since 1975.
Most of the Flyers fans who attended on Saturday weren't even born when Bobby Clarke and Bernie Parent hoisted the Cup.
"It just shows how dedicated we are to the team," said Joe DiBiaggio, 27, a Drexel Hill resident who organized a trip that took 400 fans from South Philadelphia to Pittsburgh this weekend. ". . . When that day does come when they win the Cup, it's going to feel even better knowing myself and thousands of other fans stuck by their side through the tough times."
Different generations wore jerseys from their respective eras. A man with a gray beard who looked to be in his 60s had a Parent jersey. There were scads of jerseys honoring the current players, with Claude Giroux and Shayne Gostisbehere the most popular. There were also jerseys from Flyers players between Parent and Gostisbehere: Eric Lindros, Jeremy Roenick, Simon Gagne, Peter Forsberg, Danny Briere, Jaromir Jagr, James van Riemsdyk, Sergei Bobrovsky, Chris Pronger.
The list was endless.
One fan wore a Bobby Clarke jersey even though he is from Ohio.
"When I was a kid, I started to read about this team that took the league by storm, the Broad Street Bullies, and how the league had to rewrite the rule book because of them," said Justin Wagner, 23, who drove two hours to the game. "The more I read, the more I wanted them to be my team."
Saturday's game, then, wasn't just about two points. It was also about celebrating the 50-year histories of the best two franchises to enter the league during the expansion of 1967-68.
The cynics among us, myself included, thought these games had run their course.
They haven't. Which is why you will see another enthusiastic, overflow crowd when these teams meet in an outdoor game in Philadelphia in 2019.
The fans' devotion and the little-boy enthusiasm coming from the players tell us these games still have a place on the NHL schedule.