When the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers hit the ice on January 2 at Citizens Bank Park – a stadium usually reserved for baseball's Philadelphia Phillies – they will participate as the ambassadors for a game that has become a signature event for the NHL.
The Winter Classic, the outdoor spectacle that has captured the imagination of fans and become a made-for-TV showcase, has almost by accident accomplished one of the NHL's most desired goals. It has put the league front and centre in the US sports map, and made ice hockey – or at least this one game – a water-cooler topic in a country where the sport is not usually on the tip of many tongues.
It is all about atmosphere, and jamming 50,000-plus fans into a football or baseball stadium and watching the best players in the world battle it out in the elements is the perfect recipe for ambience and a memorable experience.
The Rangers-Flyers game, featuring a couple of gritty contenders and Atlantic Division rivals, is the fifth edition. It has become an annual tradition – and cash cow – for the NHL.
Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins played in front of a league-record 71,217 fans in 2008; Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks set US records for hockey TV viewers when they faced off at Wrigley Field in 2009; Boston Bruins and Philadelphia went into overtime at Fenway Park in 2010; and, of course, Sidney Crosby's Penguins and Alex Ovechkin's Washington Capitals played through the rain last year.
The all-Canadian Heritage Classic, which began in 2003 and is usually held every two or three years, is also played outdoors, but the Winter Classic is the marquee open-air match.
As the event has gained popularity, more teams have clamoured to host it. Some are obvious choices (the Rangers would like to host at Yankee Stadium) and some are obscure (the Dallas Stars have floated the idea of playing at 100,000-seat Cowboys Stadium).
Then there are the Colorado Avalanche, who would like to play at Mile High Stadium in Denver, which the NFL's Broncos call home. And Minnesota - "Land Of 10,000 Lakes" according to its licence plates - seems like an obvious candidate as the Wild plays in one of the colder and more hockey-mad states in the US.
Detroit, Columbus, Los Angeles, St Louis and Washington have also expressed interest, and surely there are others. The concern that the game might lose its cachet if it is overexposed has dissipated as the league appears intent on limiting it to a once-a-year event.