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The Winter Classic Was the Bumbling NHL's Best Idea

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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.