The National Hockey League has chipped away at college bowl games' control of New Year's Day sports with a football staple: a game played outside on a slab of frozen tundra.
The creation of the Winter Classic, the annual outdoor hockey game played Jan. 1, put the NHL on national television on a day many people spend watching sports. Now in its fourth year, it's coming to Pittsburgh, where the Penguins will face the Washington Capitals Saturday at Heinz Field on NBC.
The Winter Classic was born of baseball rivalries, television contracts, dilution of the college football bowl schedule and a guy with a simple idea and the right connections.
Hockey was invented outside, where nature, not a custom-built 300-ton refrigeration truck, created the ice. There have been previous outdoor NHL games, the first regular-season game being the Heritage Classic in November 2003. The Montreal Canadiens beat the Edmonton Oilers, 4-3, in Edmonton, Alberta's Commonwealth Stadium in front of 57,167 fans. College and exhibition games have been played outside as well.
Game: Penguins at Ottawa Senators, 7:38 p.m. today, ScotiaBank Place.
TV, radio, Internet: FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9), www.penguins.nhl.com.
Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Brian Elliott for Senators.
Penguins: Are 15-2 in past 17 games. ... LW Mike Rupp has won 18 of his 26 faceoffs on road, despite winning just 12 of 27 at home. ... Have been assessed league-high 38 major penalties.
Senators: Have gone 1-5-2 in past eight games on home ice. ... Three of RW Alex Kovalev's eight goals have been winners. ... Are 3-12-3 when giving up first goal of game.
Of note: Senators have allowed 15 power-play goals at home, while scoring just nine.
But in 2005 Jon Miller, the executive vice president of NBC Sports, saw an opportunity. NBC's contract with the Gator Bowl, played on New Year's Day, had expired, and the Gator Bowl asked for a big rights fee, Miller said. Given the increasing number of bowl games and their extension beyond New Year's Day, NBC wasn't about to do that.
"We really felt that college football had, in a sense, ceded the day with the BCS format and the bowls that went further into January," Miller said.
He thought about a hockey game and knew where he wanted it played -- New York City, where the Yankees had lost to the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series in 2004 after leading by three games to none. He wanted to capitalize on that rivalry by having the Boston Bruins play the New York Rangers on New Year's Day in Yankee Stadium.
"I took it to Dick Ebersol [the chairman of NBC Sports] and he's heard me come in with some crazy ideas in the past," Miller said. "He said, 'Absolutely.' "
It didn't work out.
The infrastructure was not yet in place, Miller said. The Rangers were not on board, Yankee Stadium could not support an ice rink and the NHL lockout canceled the 2004-05 season. NBC pursued the idea again when play resumed in 2005-06, but it stalled on takeoff.
In December 2006, though, Miller found the help he needed when he pitched the idea to John Collins.
Collins, whom Miller had known for years, had recently become the NHL's new senior executive vice president and is now the league's chief operating officer. The two had collaborated to create the "Quarterback Challenge" and "Run to Daylight" TV shows when Collins worked for the NFL. "I need help on the inside," Miller said -- and Collins understood right away.
The Winter Classic had to be a regular-season game that meant something to the teams, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman stressed when presented with the idea.
"I said, 'Are you confident that we can actually put on this game in a way that will be credible and in a way that counts in the standings?' " Bettman said. "We had to make sure that we could conduct it in a way that would give integrity to the game."
Once the NHL decided in spring 2007 to go forward with the outdoor game, it needed to find a home for it.
"The [Buffalo] Sabres raised their hand, and we said, 'Let's put in Sidney Crosby and the Penguins' because Sid the Kid is the biggest star in hockey at that time," Miller said.
Thus began an aggressive ticket sales campaign to make sure they filled the seats at Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the Buffalo Bills, although they needn't have bothered. Bettman said the 70,000-plus tickets sold in 20 minutes and Penguins CEO and president David Morehouse said the team got complaints from season-ticket holders because the Penguins didn't ask for enough seats.
Had Miller created a storyboard for that first game, he couldn't have outdone the reality: Crosby scored the game-winning goal, in a shootout, in the snow, in front of a sellout crowd.
Standing next to Bettman before the game, Morehouse turned to him and said, "We'd like to host this."
Every year since, the Penguins badgered the NHL to host the game. The Winter Classic went to Wrigley Field in Chicago in 2009 and Fenway Park in Boston in 2010. Finally, Morehouse said, he heard from Collins, who hoped to stage the game at Heinz Field.
So Morehouse and Collins went to Steelers president and co-owner Art Rooney II to discuss the idea, and he was receptive to it. To make it work, Morehouse said, the NFL had to agree to rearrange the Steelers' schedule as follows: move the game with the Carolina Panthers to Thursday night and make the last game of the season against the Cleveland Browns a road game so the NHL had time to build the rink. The NHL announced the game in late May.
The Winter Classic comes to Pittsburgh less a hockey game and more a full-grown event.
"I talk to a lot of people now who have parties on New Year's Day to watch the Winter Classic," Miller said.
The TV ratings support the anecdotal evidence. For the 2010 Classic in Boston between the Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers, NBC earned a 2.6 Nielsen overnight rating, the second-best rating for a regular-season game since 1996, according to Sports Business Daily. In Boston, the game earned a 14.4 rating; in comparison, the Boston Celtics average a 4.1 rating for regular-season games and earned a 16.1 for their highest-rated playoff game. There were 310,000 requests for 38,000 tickets to the game in Fenway Park.
The 2008 Winter Classic was named the Sports Event of the Year by Sports Business Journal, and Bridgestone was the title sponsor of the previous two games as well as the upcoming game. The game has also attracted casual fans who stumble across it on New Year's Day and recaptured fans who had lost interest during the lockout.
"Across all platforms we are growing dramatically, both among our avid fans and our casual fans," Bettman said. "This is the type of event where it doesn't matter if you're a hockey fan, or which teams are playing if it's not your favorite team."
The Canadian Heritage Classic resumes on Feb. 20 when the Canadiens face the Calgary Flames at McMahon Stadium in Calgary, Alberta. Miller said neutral sites, such as Michigan Stadium, had been considered, and Bettman said cities with and without NHL teams expressed interest in hosting the game.
"It's just a lot of fun," Bettman said. "You see that on the expressions of the people who attend, and you actually see it watching the expressions on the players when they go for their first skate."
Bill Brink: email@example.com or 412-263-1158. First Published December 26, 2010 5:00 AM