An ice atmosphere
Ilya Bryzgalov had just exited the ice in Denver's Pepsi Center after a practice in which he began breaking in new, retro-style pads for use in Citizens Bank Park when he stopped and laugh.
"You can't play in rain, either," Bryzgalov said. "They should cancel the game. We'll have to change our gear and wear swimming hats and Speedos. Rangers versus Flyers water polo!"
Bryzgalov may just end up getting his wish; the weather forecast calls for rain on Jan. 2.
But that is the allure of the Winter Classic, now in its fifth year, which has transcended the boundaries of hockey — a "niche sport" — and become as much a part of the New Year's sporting landscape as hungover bowl games and resolutions for cellar-dwelling teams.
"It is the ultimate sports reality show," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. "I think for every fan, it's a genuine amount of fascination. You want to see how a baseball stadium is turned into a hockey rink, how two teams will handle the elements of playing outdoors, who will win, and how the fans are reacting. For us, sports outside when we're typically an indoor sport, it adds even another element of intrigue.
"It's all part of the big event."
Bryzgalov said he once played in an outdoor game in Russia nearly 15 years ago. He doesn't remember much about the game, other than the circus surrounding it.
"It was really cold," Bryzgalov said. "Big, drunk crowd. Fights. It was very entertaining, because fans were right behind the boards."
On Jan. 2, the Flyers are hosting hockey's Super Bowl, as they will welcome the New York Rangers to Citizens Bank Park for the sport's marquee attraction of the year.
The only difference for Bryzgalov, the Flyers' $51 million goaltender, is the location. He will trade the minus-15 in Moscow for 45 degrees in South Philadelphia, and fans will swap Stolichnaya vodka for Budweiser. Largely, the on-ice game remains unchanged.
The rush of a whipping winter's wind, the unpredictability of the weather, and the mystique of taking a child's game back to its roots outdoors in front of 46,000 fans in a ballpark cannot be duplicated in professional sports. That's why we love the Winter Classic.
In 5 short years, the Winter Classic has bounced from such iconic ballparks as Fenway Park and Wrigley Field to sterile football stadiums like Pittsburgh's Heinz Field and Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium without missing a beat. That's because the NHL isn't selling fans on the idea of an iconic venue, but rather a once-in-a-lifetime event that they have somehow resisted financial windfalls to keep it from becoming a gimmick.
It's hard to believe now, with all 30 teams clamoring to participate, that the first Winter Classic in Buffalo in 2008 was actually a tough sell to get both the Sabres and Penguins to participate. Bettman said the league probably had a little luck on its side, too.
"The snow for the first one certainly didn't hurt," Bettman said. "In all honesty, I think this got bigger, faster than anyone could have predicted. 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."
There really isn't a whole lot of fluff to the event. You could argue that the "hockey holiday" atmosphere surrounding the weeklong celebration of hockey — now equipped with an alumni game, an AHL game and college and high school contests — is a little much. But it all starts with the game itself.
For one, the Winter Classic counts. The Eastern Conference standings are tight as can be. It is not an All-Star Game, in which players are more concerned about the moves they can pull off on a breakaway instead of getting crushed by the opposition.
Could you imagine the NBA tipping off in Harlem's Rucker Park? Or the Phillies dusting off home plate in a sandlot in the Dominican for a nine-inning contest that could contribute to their season's fate? It wouldn't happen.
Plus, the game is wholly American. Since the puck dropped on the first Winter Classic, none of the NHL's seven Canadian franchises has participated, and there's a reason for that.
Canada has its own, less popular Heritage Classic. But the NHL is committed to growing the game in the United States, so that the game's vast television reach is as appealing in such markets as Kansas City or Seattle or Las Vegas as it is in Philadelphia or New York.
For fans, the Winter Classic represents a chance to treat a hockey game like a football Sunday, with grilling and boozing and normal parking-lot revelry. Even without a ticket, fans can catch the action on video boards outside CBP.
For the players, though, the Winter Classic is more than that. Part of the allure is an outdoor stadium capacity that more than doubles what the Wells Fargo Center can hold for a Stanley Cup finals game.
"I can remember walking out onto the ice and just being amazed by the crowd," said forward Max Talbot, who is involved in his third Winter Classic, but his first as a Flyer. "That's something that football and baseball players get to experience every week, but new for us. It was unlike anything I have ever seen before."
But, most important, walking out of the dugouts at the Bank — even with the fireworks blasting into the afternoon sky, the well-lubricated crowd and the never-ending hype — Monday will be a connection to home and skating with friends in backyard rinks.
Growing up in far-flung and frigid Hearst, Ontario, Claude Giroux can remember having an entire week off from school because the minus-30-degree temperatures kept the buses from starting. It never kept him off best friend Jeremy Lapierre's rink, the only one in town.
"We would run out there in the morning and never come off, even if our hands and feet were frozen," Giroux said. "The only time we would come home would be for dinner. Or when my mom made me."
It will be equally hard to slow the feverous momentum that the NHL has created with the Winter Classic. It's all too real.
Contact Frank Seravalli at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more news and analysis, read Frank Seravalli's blog, Frequent Flyers, at www.philly.com/FrequentFlyers. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/DNFlyers.