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Luck plays key role in Winter Classic |

Luck plays key role in Winter Classic

| Sunday, December 26, 2010 12:00 a.m

Things mostly went as planned for the first Winter Classic nearly three years ago. More than 71,000 crammed into a football stadium outside Buffalo, a hockey game broke out and the place went wild. Skirting an array of logistical potholes, all ran smoothly during the NHL’s first outdoor, regular-season game on American soil.

There were, however, some important items left to chance, two rather crucial considerations beyond the reach of the lengthy, intense planning — the contest itself, and the weather.

If it’s better being lucky than good, best of all is to be lucky and good. In a tense, exciting match, the Penguins beat the host Sabres, 2-1, on Sidney Crosby’s shootout goal. It snowed.

Far from a nasty, blinding blizzard howling off Lake Erie, a more gentle snowfall enhanced the proceedings instead of fouling them up and created a scene many would liken to, of all things, a snow globe. Could such an enormous, risky undertaking audaciously named the Winter Classic have been served any better?

“Had it not snowed and had the game not played out like it did, it still would have been a good event,” said NBC broadcaster Bob Costas, who was there on Jan. 1, 2008. “But it wouldn’t have had the buzz or taken off like it did. It more than sent us off on the right foot. It sent us flying.”

Soaring, actually. In a flash, a novelty item became something much more substantial, a major sporting event and all that it entails — national interest, marketing and hype, meaningful TV ratings, numerous fan activities and the hottest ticket in town.

“It’s a big event in and of itself, and what makes it a big event is its size,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. “Some say it’s the ultimate reality show.”

Now, following giant Ralph Wilson Stadium and two years at quaint, cozy baseball parks — Wrigley Field in Chicago and Boston’s Fenway Park — the fourth incarnation of the Winter Classic returns to a football venue, the Steelers’ Heinz Field, where a full house of about 67,000 will scream and likely shiver as the Washington Capitals play the Penguins on New Year’s Day.

“Heinz Field is where Pittsburgh goes to celebrate,” NHL chief operating officer John Collins said. “It’s been the soul of Pittsburgh. The opportunity to take that stage over for one day is pretty compelling and pretty special.”

Under favorable conditions, that is. That reality show metaphor embraces what Bettman calls “an element of unpredictable drama,” i.e., the weather. Too much snow or brutal cold or wind would be bad. Rain would be terrible. The margin of error is scant, and no one will take any chances if conditions go awry. Postponement is an inconvenient but real possibility. “This game counts,” Bettman said.

A bigger and bigger deal

Many associated with the Classic like to rhapsodize about the game returning to its outdoor “roots,” and the romance and innocence of skating on frozen ponds. Perhaps. Mainly, though, for fans in attendance, it boils down to the novelty and the party atmosphere that includes, not least of all, a rare opportunity for mass tailgating before a hockey game.

“It’s the uniqueness of it,” Penguins CEO David Morehouse said. “It’s a way to experience hockey the way you can’t normally experience it.”

That helps explain a ticket demand that annually inflates prices to more than double face value, and solid TV ratings, at least for hockey. Nationally, the game remains a hit despite a slight ratings downturn last year. Commercial time sold out faster than ever this year and advertising revenue is 20 percent higher than last year’s estimated $3 million.

Overall, the three Winter Classics have averaged 4 million viewers, compared with 1.3 million for a regular-season game and 1.9 million for a non-Stanley Cup final playoff game last season. The second Classic, in 2009, was the NHL’s most watched regular-season game since 1975.

The NHL is loath to release specific numbers, but all the jerseys (the top-end merchandise item) that were manufactured are expected to sell out. Other products, especially hats, are doing well, according to the league. Last year, game-day merchandise sales at Fenway reportedly jumped 44 percent from 2009 and another increase is expected. Based on the $8 million in ticket sales at Fenway and this year’s attendance, about $14 million — divided for the most part among the 30 teams, like other revenues — might come from ticket sales for the Heinz game.

Meanwhile, the Penguins will receive a home “buy-out” from the league, compensating for the ticket, parking and concession revenues a normal home game would have brought in.

Bettman insists the Classic is not a huge windfall, stressing the exposure as a significant add-on.

“The direct economic impact is probably overstated because this is a very expensive event to produce,” he said, adding that it cost “many millions” to stage the Classic. “We do this more for the ancillary benefits, some of which may be financial.”

The Classic has expanded in ways that few anticipated, morphing into a week-long festival of fan-friendly events, with a newly constructed skating rink as the centerpiece. Among the attractions are public skating, youth hockey games, a “Spectator Plaza” with all sorts of activities and an old-timer’s game featuring Penguins legend (and part-owner) Mario Lemieux. That noted 10-year-old mezzo-soprano, Jackie Evancho of Richland, will sing the national anthem.

Significant to the NHL is that the Winter Classic has become part of the New Year’s Day television landscape, supplanting the college bowl games that migrated elsewhere with the formation of the Bowl Championship Series. A few Jan. 1 bowls remain, but gone are the days when the so-called major bowls claimed the date, and most of the TV viewers.

“More and more people who don’t watch hockey tell me they can’t wait for New Year’s Day to watch hockey,” NBC Sports vice president Jon Miller said.

A broken record

If Miller isn’t the father of the Winter Classic, he assumes major parental responsibilities. Inspired by the 2003 Heritage Classic in Edmonton, the NHL’s first regular-season outdoor game (another Heritage Classic is set for Feb. 20 in Calgary), Miller, a big baseball fan, dreamed of the league staging something similar at Yankee Stadium with the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins.

NBC Sports guru Dick Ebersol was intrigued, Miller said. But the NHL had some issues, not least of all the acrimonious labor issues that would lead to cancellation of an entire season. Also, said Miller, league officials were leery about teams giving up a home game, and “the NHL didn’t possess the infrastructure to do stand-alone events.”

When play resumed in 2005, Miller picked up the drumbeat and persevered.

“I was a broken record on this,” he said. “More than ever I knew it was the right thing to do, especially after it became apparent the bowl games had pretty much ceded the day.”

Then, as often happens with big decisions, a stroke of luck. In the fall of 2006, the NHL hired Collins, for many years an NFL executive whose last job was running the Cleveland Browns. This was good news for Miller; the two went way back together. Miller said Collins asked at the outset how he could help further the partnership between the league and NBC.

Funny you should ask, Miller said, or words to that effect. “He (Collins) said, ‘That sounds pretty interesting. Let’s get back to you,’ ” Miller recalled.

Early in 2007, Collins told Miller the league had hired Don Renzulli, who had a long history of staging events for the NFL. With Renzulli came new special events and sales teams. “We think we can make this happen,” Miller said Collins told him.

Still, there was more than a bit of angst leading up to the first Winter Classic, concerns over fan support (the game sold out in half an hour) or what the ice would be like (fine) and sweating out the weather (snow globe). But it happened, all right, and has kept right on going.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would be this good,” Miller said. “I have to pinch myself.”

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