The most anticipated game on the NHL's 2010-11 schedule is almost upon us, as the made-for-TV Winter Classic, featuring Sidney Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins and Alex Ovechkin's Washington Capitals, takes it outside on New Year's Day.
With the NHL's two biggest stars headlining the affair, the league has another chance to sell itself to casual fans in the United States as well as endear itself to hockey fans everywhere else. The annual outdoor game, which will be played before 67,000 fans at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field (home of the NFL's Steelers), has become a signature event for the league, especially in the US, due to its unique appeal.
It harkens back to the game's pond hockey roots, to a simpler time when all you needed was a puck, a stick and a pair of skates. Unlike today's modern arenas, the contest is at the mercy of Mother Nature, and the possibility that Crosby and Ovechkin could be forced to scrape the ice between periods - or after a surprise snowfall - is an alluring one, indeed.
There always is the danger in these events that the league will go back to the well too many times, and that the game's appeal will be lost (or diluted) in the process. That certainly hasn't happened yet, but with another outdoor tilt scheduled for February - Montreal at Calgary - the NHL is trending towards over-exposure. And if you've ever been outside in Calgary in February, you're well aware that over-exposure can be deadly.