PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Back in 2003, the National Hockey League got the idea to take their game that was born on the ponds of North America's colder climates and return it to the great outdoors.
The Heritage Classic brought the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers together in Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium in temperatures approaching minus 22 degrees with wind chill. It attracted stars such as former Edmonton greats Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messsier -- who was still active with the New York Rangers at the time and got permission from the team to play -- and the Canadiens' Guy Lafleur. It also drew a crowd of 57,167 to see a 4-3 win by the Canadiens that featured four goals in the final period alone.
It was a smashing success and -- typical of an NHL that fumbled its way through hit-or-miss southern expansion, slow "trapping" play and questionable television deals -- was immediately squandered when the league lost an entire season to a lockout in 2004 and 2005. It was the first time the league didn't award a team the Stanley Cup and was the low point of Commissioner Gary Bettman's tenure that already included a season shortened by labor strife.
It took the league a painful five years to try an outdoor game 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 an overtime shootout. A whopping 71,217 fans were in attendance and another 3.8 million people watched from home, giving hockey its highest regular-season game rating since 1996 and highest ratings share since Gretzky's final game in 1999. It tied NBC with competing CBS' coverage of the Gator Bowl and made hockey unthinkably competitive on a day that typically belongs to college football.
Since that game, the Winter Classic played on or around New Year's Day has not only been the NHL's most constant bright spot, but it's proven to be the best idea the league has ever had.
After that first Winter Classic, every NHL town wanted an outdoor game and even casual hockey fans made time on New Year's Day to watch. 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 even after the league moved its date to Jan. 2 to avoid taking on the National Football League. Still, that was the fifth most-watched NHL game since 1975 and got its own HBO 24/7 documentary. A year earlier, when weather at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh forced the league to move the Winter Classic to primetime, 4.57 million people tuned in.
During last year's lockout that cost the NHL half of its season, 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. That loss hit hard and is arguably the reason the NHL salvaged the shortened season that made the Chicago Blackhawks' Stanley Cup run possible and gave the league a Blackhawks-Boston Bruins Stanley Cup final that was the league's highest rated since the Rangers ended their 54-year Stanley Cup drought in 1994.
But even that final lacked the overall impact of the Winter Classic. Of the six most-watched regular-season NHL games of the past 28 years, five are Winter Classics. The 2011 Winter Classic, forced into primetime by weather, helped NBC beat the programs on all three other major networks that evening.
This year, Ann Arbor gets its long-awaited Winter Classic as the Red Wings and Maple Leafs pickup up their unfinished business from last year on New Year's Day. The cancellation of last year's event cost sponsors between $3 million and $3.5 million and cost the Ann Arbor area an estimated $15 million in hotel, restaurant and retail revenue. This year, it's estimated that the Bridgestone-sponsored event can bring in 107,000 fans and $30 million in spending.
It's given the league a known commodity and has helped it dig out of its labor dispute in stunning fashion. The 392,000 viewers per game that the NHL averaged last season was its highest viewership since the 1993-94 season and was an immediate return on investment for NBC, which paid $2 billion for 10 years of NHL coverage last year. That's couch change compared with the $1.9 billion ESPN is paying per year to broadcast Monday Night Football alone, but it's triple what the NHL was getting in rights fees before. The last time the NHL had this kind of stability was pre-lockout 2004, when ESPN still felt hockey was a real sport and hadn't yet forced the labor-troubled league off its channels and onto the Outdoor Life Network. Fortunately for the NHL, the unknown OLN and its little-known second incarnation, Versus, eventually joined the NBC family thanks to the Comcast merger and saw value in what the NHL was offering -- especially in outdoor games.
It just wanted more of them, as did other cities. It's why 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 Stadium Series continues as 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.
With more outdoor games and the league realigned to avoid placing teams in divisions outside their time zones that drain potential ratings, the NHL may actually have become what NBC believes it to be: a commodity with a whole lot of upside. It's been roundly reviled as North America's No. 4 sport, but isn't as far removed from No. 3 as it seems. The NBA generates $4.1 billion dollars a year in revenue but has a relatively low profit of just over $180 million dollars a year. The NHL's $3.3 billion in revenue and $160 million average profit looks puny compared with the NFL ($10 billion in revenue, $1 billion profit) and MLB ($8 billion revenue, $500 million profit), but it's still within striking distance of Kobe, LeBron and company. That's despite charging an average of $62 per ticket to the NBA's $51.
As evidenced by the edition of outdoor games, the Winter Classic may have taught the NHL its most valuable lesson of all: to fix what's not working and play to its strengths. When the Thrashers weren't inspiring much enthusiasm in Atlanta and Winnipeg came up with a good building and willing backers, the league approved the return of its Winnipeg Jets and undid some of the damage of the original team's move to Arizona -- where the Coyotes are just now finding stability. In Quebec City, where the Nordiques left a huge void after moving to Colorado nearly two decades ago, construction on an NHL-caliber arena is under way and struggling Florida teams isolated by realignment are looking like prime targets for a move.
There is genuine excitement around the NHL again, and the Winter Classic has played a key role in renewing it. With the 2015 Winter Classic location in Washington, D.C., already set and towns including Minneapolis, Denver, St. Louis and even Columbus, Ohio, waiting for their shot, the NHL should continue to reap the benefits of its best idea for a good, long while. By supplementing it with the Stadium Series and Heritage Classic, the league only gives more cities and sponsors a chance to get into the game.
For a league once defined by its poor choices, letting its teams and fans go outside and play was the greatest decision the NHL ever made. By embracing hockey's past, it ensured its future.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.