Winter Classic looking like another massive success for the NHL

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BOSTON - The NHL looks poised to hit another home run with the Winter Classic.

For the third straight New Year's Day, the league is taking its game outdoors and this one appears to be even bigger than the others. There is considerable buzz in and around Fenway Park, where numerous banners and posters are trumpeting Friday's game between the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers (CBC, 1 p.m. ET).

All 40,000 seats at the classic baseball stadium have long been sold and the corporate community has come out in full force to grab some sponsorship of the event.

Even the most optimistic executives in the league's front office couldn't have predicted how quickly the Winter Classic would grow after it was first staged two years ago in Buffalo.

"On a national level, the thing has been a beast," said John Collins, the NHL's chief operating officer. "It's delivered everything we wanted in terms of creating a new tradition on New Year's Day, in terms of profile and the momentum it's given the NHL and in terms of its appeal to the corporate advertising community."

A poll that appeared earlier this week in the Sports Business Daily reflects that. More than 1,100 senior-level sports industry executives were asked what sports event they were most looking forward to in 2010 and the Winter Classic finished fifth - behind only the Super Bowl, Winter Olympics, FIFA World Cup and the NCAA men's basketball final four.

On top of sponsorships, Collins also acknowledged that Friday's game will bring in a gate of roughly US$8 million.

"We're making money," he said.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman acknowledged earlier this month that the league is looking to hold a second outdoor game next season in Canada - something Collins believes is virtually risk-free.

While acknowledging there is some long-term risk to "diluting" the product, Collins doesn't believe it is anywhere near that point yet: "When it goes into a great hockey market you can see the interest."

The league has already started accepting bids for future outdoor games and is expected to make a decision in February about the location of next year's games. Collins said everything from baseball stadiums to college football stadiums and other "unique" locations could be considered.

One risk that always comes with these game is the possibility that weather could force a delay. Organizers received a more favourable forecast on Wednesday as meteorologists are now calling for a mix of snow and rain on Friday.

An excessive amount of precipitation could force the game to be postponed until Saturday, but that doesn't seem like a great risk.

"We'll continue to monitor the weather," Don Renzulli, the NHL's senior vice-president for events told reporters at a briefing this week. "We're prepared for a number of different issues and when we get to Thursday we'll make a call based on that current weather forecast but right now it looks like we'll be good to go and play the game."

That decision will ultimately be made by the league and representatives from the NHLPA.

Dan Craig, the NHL's ice guru, watched closely as members of the media took a turn on the ice Wednesday. The sheet was in even better condition than at this point a year ago in Wrigley Field.

Just like everything else surrounding the event, it seems to be getting better and better each year. The Winter Classic has certainly come a long way since some tense moments at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium in 2007.

"I knew it could be big but didn't at that point really know how big it could get," said Renzulli. "I think what you see in Boston there's a big buzz around the game. Buffalo there was a buzz, but it was more about game day. Out at the stadium where it was located you didn't see many people.

"Here you're seeing people walking around, the store's busy across the street. I've had people look online to see what ticket prices are and they're awfully high which means there's a lot of buzz."


David Perron

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