The NHL has finally found its Kentucky Derby, its Daytona 500, its Breakfast at Wimbledon in the Winter Classic being played Saturday (weather permitting) at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
In a U.S. TV grid saturated by the NFL, NBA, NCAA and MLB, there are rare openings for another sport to capture appointment viewing with the audience. Forget weeks or even days in the spotlight, second-tier sports must the seize a signature day - any day - and run with it.
The NHL has long sought that window of opportunity, but the all-star game was too vanilla and the playoffs lasted too long for Americans caught up in their core sports. With the advent of the Winter Classic, however, the league has happened upon its window into the consciousness of the U.S. sports-viewing public. (And exploited it with the HBO 24/7 documentaries leading to the Jan. 1 game.)
To hear Jon Miller, NBC's executive vice-president of sports, the NHL had to be led to the water and then gently coerced into drinking from the Winter Classic well. Speaking to Usual Suspects earlier this year at the Ryder Cup, Miller said he had long talked up the potential for the NHL to stage a televised outdoor game. Previous outdoor experiments with Edmonton's Heritage Classic and the University of Michigan convinced Miller that there was a future in the frozen moment.
Miller says he approached the NHL brass with the idea of a game around which NBC could wrap its efforts. He says the league was generally supportive of the idea, but that "it wasn't till John Collins [NHL COO]joined the league that I had an ally in arguing for the game."
Collins, who'd cut his teeth in the NFL's mighty marketing machine, saw the potential right away, however. He helped convince the league to embrace the concept.
NBC was losing its football bowl games on New Year's Day (ESPN controls all but two of the major bowl games now) and was looking at ways to counter-program the day when many Americans are at home, recovering from the night before.
"Once we saw that first game in Buffalo [in 2008]with the snow and the packed football stadium, we knew we had something special," Miller recounted.
"There's no Winter Classic without [NBC]" Collins told a media conference Thursday. "Coming first to us to play on Jan. 1 gave it a lot of momentum ... without Jon Miller, Sam Flood, Dick Ebersol to believe in the idea, to give us [the Jan. 1]window, we wouldn't be here otherwise."
NBC's Bob Costas described the serendipity of the Buffalo moment in another conference call. "The way this was televised, it looked like a game being played in a snow globe," Costas said. "And it was so different from anything that people were used to seeing that I think even those that weren't intending to watch the game - you're channel surfing and you come across this thing, you say, 'Wait a minute, this is kind of visually arresting.'
"Everywhere I went for the next week to 10 days [after the inaugural Winter Classic] somebody would have something to say about it," Costas said. "Seeing hockey that way, it just went beyond the importance of one game. It became a tradition in one year."
The subsequent Classics at Wrigley Field in Chicago and Fenway Park in Boston only enhanced the new-found TV tradition of a 1 p.m. ET start before the Rose Bowl later that day. Ratings justified the network's confidence. For many, the outdoor game now defines the NHL brand in the United States - with another six months to go before the Stanley Cup is awarded. There will be 76 cameras trained on the game, whenever it starts.
Collins says he's not worried that a rain-plagued Classic on Saturday will spoil NBC's interest in the concept, comparing it to the World Series or auto racing where fans understand that the elements can intervene. "Weather is part of this game's DNA," he said Thursday. "Everyone understands what they're getting into."
You can monitor the conditions of the ice until game time by clicking on www.nhl.com/winterclassic.