But now hockey owns New Year's Day the way baseball owns the Fourth of July and football owns Thanksgiving. Sure, there's still plenty of college grid action on the first day of the year, but many big bowls have been pushed back in the name of ratings and rankings. The NHL has stepped in with the Winter Classic which will be held this year at Fenway Park, featuring the Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers.
Outdoor hockey brings the sport to its roots. Most of the players who make it to the NHL spent time skating on ponds, rivers, or open-air rinks. Putting the world's best players outdoors is decidedly old school and makes for great television. It's the Currier & Ives effect. Even the neutral zone trap looks good inside a snow globe.
In 2003, the NHL went outside for the Heritage Classic, and hockey krishnas worldwide still shiver when they speak of the sub-zero contest between the Oilers and Canadiens played in front of 57,167 at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium.
Two years ago, the league went back outdoors and struck gold when NBC aired a snowy overtime/shootout thriller between the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins. Channel-surfing sports fans found themselves unable to turn away from the sight of the Sidney Crosby dashing through the snow flakes in front of 71,217 at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
A holiday sports tradition was born.
Seizing the (New Year's) Day, league czars took the game to Wrigley Field last year and the 2009 Classic produced the NHL's highest regular season television rating in 13 years. Now the torch has been passed to Fenway Park and the Bruins of Original Six lore. Boston is positively agog at the sight of a Zamboni parked in front of the Green Monster. I kid you not.
The average high temperature in Boston on January 1 is 38 degrees, but nobody seems to be worried about the cold. More than 300,000 fans tried to buy tickets for the Winter Classic at Fenway. Tickets are not cheap. A grandstand seat in section 27 goes for $250 face value.
This is no one-day deal for the city. Fenway Park's ice surface was put down a couple of weeks ago and Messrs Orr, Milt Schmidt, Cam Neely and Raymond Bourque christened the ballpark sheet with a morning skate on December 18. The ice has rarely been empty since that day. Ever-intent on squeezing every available buck out of Fenway, the Red Sox have been charging groups $10,000 per hour to rent ballpark ice. Parents of two New England prep schools ponied up $30,000 to watch their sons play a game at Fenway. On January 8, Hockey East will feature a doubleheader including Boston College vs. Boston University in the nightcap. BC and BU won the last two NCAA championships.
The lights were on at Fenway Sunday night and NBC cut-away from its Giants-Redskins broadcast with a live shot from the rink to remind everyone to watch Friday's game. Even free public skating has been commercialized. When Hub mayor Thomas Menino insisted that the Sox set aside time for free public skating, some of the lucky winners went on the internet and offered their tickets for $1,800.
It's the irresistible lure of old-timey outdoor skating . . . and Fenway Park.
Built in 1912, beloved Fenway has played host to a lot more than homers and infield fly rules over the last 97 years. The Boston Patriots of the AFL played six seasons in the lyric bandbox in the 1960s and old-timers remember Gino Cappelletti's field goals flying over the right field bullpens and into the bleachers. College football was also a staple and the great Vin Scully made his bones broadcasting a Boston University-Maryland game from Fenway's freezing rooftop in 1949. The Harlem Globetrotters played an exhibition there in 1954 and the ballpark served as home of the NASL's Boston Beacons in 1968. Boxing and steel cage wrestling have also been offered at Fenway.
FDR held a campaign rally at Fenway in 1944. Since John Henry bought the Red Sox in 2002, the ballpark has been a summer concert venue featuring the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Buffett, Dave Matthews Band, the Police, the Rolling Stones, Phish and Paul McCartney.
It takes 20,000 gallons of water to put a sheet of ice on the Red Sox infield. The center ice dot is 125 feet from home plate and 65 cameras have been positioned around the ballpark to bring the event to the masses. Bob Costas will serve as NBC's host.
"I think it's appropriate that I'm referred to as an 'event host,' because this is really an event,'' Costas said. "It's a hockey game, yes, but it's also an event. It attracts a lot of people who don't necessarily follow hockey closely throughout the year.''
Folks watching hockey on television. Imagine that.
Dan Shaughnessy is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Read more of his columns here.