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Costas still overwhelmed by Classic experience

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

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Costas still overwhelmed by Classic experience
The 2011 Bridgestone Winter Classic will be Bob Costas' fourth at the helm for NBC, but don't think he's lost any joy for the event.
Bob Costas views himself as NBC's maestro for New Year's Day. He doesn't have to tune the instruments or even play them, but he'll be at the front of the orchestra, using his own instrument -- his famous voice -- to bring the viewers at home through their own television screens and into the pageantry of the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic.

He's done it to standing ovations and calls for an encore for three years now, and with the rivalry of Sidney Crosby and the Penguins and Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals as his backdrop, Costas expects to hit all the high notes again while leaving it to experts like Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, Mike Milbury and Pierre McGuire to deal with all the hockey jargon.

"My role in this is a lot like my role in the Kentucky Derby," Costas said during a breakfast with reporters inside the NHL's New York offices Tuesday. "I think NBC, they excel at understanding that you can do an event that serves the interest of the hard core, knowledgeable fan, but also broadens it out to the casual viewer. There are people who watch the Winter Classic who might only watch Olympic hockey and the Stanley Cup Final. So we do a very good job in drawing them in and saying, 'Look, this is an event.'

"I think I can get the idea across that hey, if you were in Buffalo or Chicago or Boston, and now this time around in Pittsburgh, this is an event that you'd really want to be at, this is what it feels like to be here, here is the overview, and then we've got (Mike) Emrick and (Mike) Milbury and everybody else to take care of the nuts and bolts. I look forward to it as an event." -- Bob Costas

"You don't have to know how to read a racing form to want to be at the Kentucky Derby. The race lasts two minutes; we make a two-hour telecast out of it and it gets a high rating because the atmospherics matter. I don't pose as a hockey expert. I love the game, but I'm not involved in it day to day like I have been in some other sports for a long time. But I think I can get the idea across that hey, if you were in Buffalo or Chicago or Boston, and now this time around in Pittsburgh, this is an event that you'd really want to be at, this is what it feels like to be here, here is the overview, and then we've got Emrick and Milbury and everybody else to take care of the nuts and bolts. I look forward to it as an event."

The event has rekindled Costas' appreciation for hockey and the NHL in general.

He appreciated the first Winter Classic for the spectacle that it was, and for what the Buffalo blizzard allowed it to become.

"This was a new venture for all of us," Costas recalled. "We thought it was an exciting idea on paper, but it came to life when you walked into that stadium, that football stadium filled with 75,000 people, and then it starts to snow. The way this televised, it looked like a game being played in a snow globe 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.'

"Although it got a surprisingly high number in the ratings at that time for a regular-season hockey game, the buzz about it exceeded the number. Seeing hockey that way, it just went beyond the importance of one game."

The next two years were easy for Costas. Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, two iconic baseball stadiums, allowed him to use the venue as the star, and these were two he knows well as a baseball fan and historian.

"In its own way, each of these three has been pitch perfect," Costas told NHL.com. "I can't think of anything about the first three where I would say, 'That was good, but I wish they changed that,' or, 'They screwed this part up.' It's all been perfect."

Costas is eager to offer NBC's audience his spin in his tone on the budding rivalry between Penguins and Capitals and Crosby and Ovechkin.

Absent of snow, Costas said, "The focus is on Crosby and Ovechkin, but there is nothing wrong with that. If you're going to have two NHL players on the ice on New Year's Day, those are the two you want."

While he admits he's not an insider on the subject, Costas definitely is aware of the buzz the two marquee players have created in the NHL. He's not ready to put that rivalry on the same pedestal as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, or Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, but he said it could be heading in that direction.

"The thing we have to acknowledge is these guys (Crosby and Ovechkin) have never competed for the championship, and being in the same conference the best you can do is get to the conference finals," Costas said. "They need not just a rivalry for who is the best player; they need a rivalry where something big is at stake when they're both on the ice. I think it's at a high mid-level with potential above that, but Bird and Johnson were ushered into the NBA off of what is still the most-watched college basketball game ever when they played for the championship. And then, luckily for them -- and they had a lot to do with it -- the Lakers and Celtics were always playing (in the NBA Finals). It's hard to duplicate that."

On an individual basis, somebody mentioned, and Costas agreed, that soccer icon Pele might have been one of the few foreign athletes from a team sport who have transcended North American pop culture the way Ovechkin has.

"The world has changed. The 'Miracle on Ice' would not have mattered as it did if you didn't have the geo-politics involved. That's gone away now," Costas said. "Because none of those athletes from the Soviet Union were ever seen in the United States outside of an Olympic context or the occasional tour of the Soviet hockey team, I can't think of one (like Ovechkin)."

Costas, wary again of using comparisons to Johnson, Bird or Michael Jordan, believes Crosby, at just 23 years of age, already has reached greatness, because, "when you have a good script you need the right leading man, and he's the right leading man.

"It's almost crazy, but if Sidney Crosby was to retire tomorrow, he's already a Hall of Famer."

And if the NHL was to never put on another Winter Classic, Costas believes the event has touched sports fans in a way hockey never has before.

However, he's not ready to retire his wand, and the NHL and NBC aren't ready to box up the instruments and leave them to collect dust on New Year's Day.

Crosby isn't going anywhere, and neither are Costas and the Winter Classic.

"In the middle of the football season, the football playoffs and the bowl season, 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."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl