With the NHL preparing to drop the puck on the 10th installment of the Winter Classic with the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres facing off January 1 at Citi Field, it's a fun exercise to look back at the roots of a league tentpole event.
There's the throwback to the outdoor game players and fans remember from childhood, skating on a fresh pond or lake, cutting through the cold, crisp winter air and seeing lungfuls of warm air materialize.
The pond hockey homage is only one part of the game's roots, as baseball and even college football played roles in the Winter Classic's existence.
In October 2004, months after NBC had signed a multi-year broadcast deal with the NHL, the network needed something to fill recently vacated college football bowl space for New Year's Day. Luckily, NBC Sports executive VP Jon Miller was watching the Red Sox and Yankees duke it out in the American League Championship Series.
"I started thinking, I need to come up with something for New Year’s Day," he says. "How great would it be if we could get the Boston Bruins to come down and play the New York Rangers at Yankees Stadium? The more I thought about it, the more I thought college football had ceded the day at that point; all the big bowl games were on in primetime on multiple different days and most of the games that were on in the afternoon on New Year's Day, at that time, were what I call 'the Who Take The Trash Out Bowl.' It really was a time we thought we could take advantage of."
With some inspiration from 2003's Heritage Classic game in Edmonton, an outdoor matchup between the Oilers and Canadiens at Commonwealth Stadium, Miller went to work.
Miller took his idea for a regular-season outdoor game to NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol, who encouraged him to bring it to the league and commissioner Gary Bettman. Initially, the NHL's reception was lukewarm; the league lacked a special events department and a clear way to turn Miller's concept into a reality. There was initially some interest from the Bruins and Rangers, but the venue was another roadblock.
"The Yankee Stadium folks thought we were kind of crazy," he says. "Who would ever want to put an outdoor hockey game in the House that Ruth Built? So, we didn't really have a whole lot of luck there, either, but I wasn't going to be deterred. I kept pushing for it."
Another obstacle popped up in the form of a season-long lockout, quickly ending 2004-05 and what was supposed to be NBC's first with the league.
Even with the NHL sidelined, Miller refused to let his idea rest. He found help in the form of Seth Winter, recently named executive VP of ad sales, and Sam Flood, the network's executive hockey producer. They brought a knowledge and enthusiasm for selling and producing the game that helped Miller continue to make his idea a "front-burner item" with the league, especially once the work stoppage ended and play resumed for the 2005-06 season.
A November 2006 meeting with John Collins, the league's new senior marketing VP and former acquaintance of Miller's from their early industry days, took things a step further.
Collins, recognizing some of the shortfalls that prevented the league from picking up the initial idea, created an events department inside the league. He called around gauging interest among teams to play in the outdoor game and returned with one promising bit of news: the Buffalo Sabres were very, very interested in taking part. Finding a second team proved to be a challenge, however, with the Pittsburgh Penguins and up-and-coming star Sidney Crosby finally joining the cause. Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium, home to the NFL's Bills, was confirmed as a venue.
With the game finally taking shape, Miller realized there was still a lot of work to do. A template existed from the Heritage Classic, but there were still concerns about the weather, the sight lines and camera angles.
"There was a very skeptical feel whether it was going to work and what it was going to be like," Flood says.
"The NHL did a great job making their announcement up in Buffalo and they sold out in a matter of hours," Miller says. "That indicated to use that we really, we had to make sure that we delivered."
The nerves dissipated when Miller, Flood and NBC on-air personality Bob Costas flew in to Buffalo on the eve of the big game. Upon landing in the middle of the night, they found a city alive with anticipation.
"By the time we got to our hotel, it was 2:30, 3:00, and people were still partying in downtown Buffalo," Miller says. "It was a real scene, and it was freezing out. We get up and go to the stadium at 10 that next morning and driving into the parking lot at the stadium was surreal for me. People were outside tailgating, playing street hockey, throwing a football around, just in a great mood tailgating, and they had been there for hours."
The snowy Buffalo weather provided a scenic backdrop as youth players chased a puck on a side rink inside Ralph Wilson Stadium. An NHL-record 71,217 fans showed up to see the spectacle, while an airplane flying overhead provided a birds-eye view.
"We were very fortunate that snow came in the morning of that first game and created a snow globe effect," Flood says.
The players, wearing heat-saving turtlenecks under their gear and retro uniforms and knit winter hats over it, found themselves taking it all in.
"When we saw the players come out amongst the snow," Miller says, "and they had their toques on to take their warm-ups, the smiles on their faces and they were wide-eyed, they just couldn't believe it—nor could we—and we just kind of realized that this is something really special and it wasn't just a one-time gimmick and it was gonna hopefully have a long, long life."
The excitement bubbled over onto the ice, where Penguins forward Colby Armstrong scored just 21 seconds into the game.
"It was fun, that first goal being scored and us taking the first replay from an airplane," Flood says. "Someone in the truck said, well, you can’t see the puck go in the net. I said, it's the first time ever you’ve had a replay from an airplane in a hockey game."
"The good thing was we had an engrossing game," NBC play-by-play man Doc Emrick says. "Marc Joannette and Don VanMassenhoven, the referees … had to constantly be shoveling and have the Zambonis out, not one player complained all afternoon. There were delays, sure, but nobody complained. It was all a part of a collective effort to get a game in and to enjoy playing a game outdoors."
The game found its way to a fitting conclusion: The Sabres tied it on Brian Campbell's early second-period strike. A scoreless third period and overtime sent the game into the shootout. If the players enjoyed it, so, too, did the fans, who were treated to a defining moment for the league and its inaugural Winter Classic.
Sabres forward Ales Kotalik opened the shootout by beating goalie Ty Conklin to deafening cheers, Penguins forward Erik Christiansen was unsuccessful against Ryan Miller. Tim Connolly's attempt was stopped, but Kris Letang went forehand-backhand to even things out for Pittsburgh. After Maxim Afinogenov failed to beat Conklin, the game came down to Sidney Crosby.
"The game on his stick right here," Emrick called as the Penguins' young star picked up the ice and sped past Miller amid falling snowflakes and a raucous Ralph Wilson Stadium crowd. Crosby slid the puck through the goalie's legs and the announcer let go an excited proclamation. "GOAL! PENGUINS WIN!"
Heading into the game, there was no guarantee for a second outdoor game. After the Penguins celebrated their victory in the cold outdoor air, it was difficult for there not to be at least a sequel.
"The original idea to put something on New Year's Day, it was kind of 'this is a one-off, let's see if this works,' and if it works, maybe we do it again in Year Two and Three," Miller says. "But I had no idea it was ever going to grow to become what it is. I did think when we first did it, it sounded like it was so difficult to get anybody to agree to host, and John did such a good job of delivering Buffalo and Pittsburgh, that it was going to become tough to maintain that. Sure enough, after Year 1, we had ten teams raise their hands."
In the years since, the NHL has brought outdoor hockey to Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Ann Arbor, Washington D.C., Foxborough and St. Louis. Games have been played in venues like Fenway Park, Michigan Stadium and Wrigley Field. The Blackhawks, Bruins, Flyers, Rangers, Canadiens, Maple Leafs and Capitals have been among teams to take part, while the league has also expanded its outdoor repertoire to games north of the border in Canada and on the considerably warmer West Coast. The game has consistently produced ratings, accounting for seven of the league's 10 most-watched regular season games.
While there's yet to be that Rangers-Bruins matchup Miller initially conjured up while watching baseball, the Winter Classic has found itself a home on the yearly hockey schedule and sports calendar, right up there with baseball postseason classics and college football bowls.