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5 Reasons This Is the Year to Watch the NHL

More outdoor games

In 2003, the NHL took a chance and hosted a game between the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers in Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium. The result was a 4-3 win for the Canadiens in front of a crowd of 57,167, but the grand conclusion of the experiment was that an outdoor game not only worked, but brought a whole bunch of people out to watch.

It took the league a painful five years to try it again, but on Jan. 1, 2008, at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, N.Y., the snow fell, the goalies wore knit hats, the rink crew came prepared with shovels, and Sidney Crosby gave the Pittsburgh Penguins the win over the Buffalo Sabres in front of 71,217.

Afterward, every NHL town wanted an outdoor game and even casual hockey fans made time on New Year's Day to watch the games. The last Winter Classic matchup between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Ballpark in 2011 drew 3.74 million viewers. That was the fifth most-watched NHL game since 1975. A year earlier, when weather at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh forced the league to move the Winter Classic to prime time, 4.57 million people tuned in.

During last year's lockout, fans didn't bemoan the loss of early regular season games nearly as much as they mourned the loss of the Winter Classic matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich. It was too much collateral damage and, ultimately, helped the league and its players salvage a shortened season.

This year, Ann Arbor gets its long-awaited Winter Classic as NHL fans get a total of six outdoor games. The 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium series starts Jan. 24 at Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles with a matchup between the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks before moving to New York to Jan. 26 and 29 as the Rangers host the New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders, respectively, at Yankee Stadium. On March 1 in Chicago, the site of the 2009 Winter Classic, the reigning NHL Champion Blackhawks host the Pittsburgh Penguins at Soldier Field. That's followed March 2, when the Vancouver Canucks and Ottawa Senators take the outdoor ice at Vancouver's BC Place for the Heritage Classic.

Will all those games dilute the Winter Classic's appeal? Doubtful. Of the six most-watched NHL games of the past 27 year, five are Winter Classics. The game's New Year's Day date gives it some extra help, while the Stadium Series matchups only fuel large markets' appetite for outdoor matchups. Given the host cities' responses to outdoor games, it's a tough opportunity for the NHL to pass up.
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