The NHL will again take over an historic baseball stadium for the Winter Classic today, looking to slam another marketing home run at Fenway Park following last year's success at Wrigley Field.
Winter Classic set to hit a homer
In just three years the Winter Classic has blossomed into the NHL's signature event and is developing into a New Year's tradition on a day once reserved for a feast of US college American football. Taking the game back to its outdoor origins seems to have struck an emotional chord with hockey fans and players alike. "It is the perfect setting, to be honest with you," the Flyers' defenceman Chris Pronger said.
"What better way to get back to your roots and your childhood than playing in an outdoor game in front of 35,000 people and enjoying yourself out in nature and the elements." This year the Winter Classic will have to share the hockey spotlight with a pair of major Olympic announcements. Hockey Canada on Wednesday unveiled the team they will send to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, while the United States are set to announce tjeir Olympic line-up from Fenway today.
That has only added to the buzz surrounding an occasion that has provided a marketing and promotional bonanza for the NHL, particularly important in the US where hockey has struggled for attention. As North America continues to crawl out of a recession, many NHL teams have struggled to fill arenas, with fans cutting spending and companies trimming the money they budget for fancy suites and sponsorships.
But the downturn has had no impact on the Winter Classic. According to SportsBusiness Journal, the NHL will earn US$10million (Dh36.7m) from sponsors for the game at Fenway, double the amount for last year's event at Wrigley Field, while more than 300,000 fans entered a lottery for 40,000 tickets priced from $50 to $350. Television ratings for the 2009 Winter Classic were the highest for a regular-season game in 13 years, according to the NHL, which expects the 2010 event to improve on those numbers.
What started as a one-off novelty has become a key fixture on the NHL calendar. The league has invested heavily in state-of-the-art ice-making equipment and cities are queuing up for the chance to stage the showcase. Reports suggest New York's Yankee Stadium is at the top of a list of possible future sites while Canadians are demanding an outdoor game with Toronto, Montreal and Calgary all expressing interest.
After staging the first two outdoor contests in massive football stadiums, the NHL has found more success in the intimate settings provided by the two historic baseball homes. The first Winter Classic was played in Edmonton in November 2003, when 51,000 fans braved arctic conditions to watch what was billed as the Heritage Classic between the hometown Oilers and the Montreal Canadiens. The NHL waited until 2008 before repeating the experiment, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres attracting a league record 71,217 to Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo.
But it was last year's Classic, staged in the cosy confines of Wrigley Field, when Detroit beat Chicago 6-4, that lifted the event to new levels. "I think it's incredible, the momentum that it's gathered through the years," said the former Bruin Ray Bourque, a Hall of Fame defenceman. "It's really been a home run I think for the NHL exposing the game to so many more fans. "What it's created, what it's done for the NHL, and hockey in general, it's been a home run over the Green Monster."