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Winter Classic continues meteoric growth

By Bob Condor - NHL.com Editor-in-Chief

PITTSBURGH -- When NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins told the media Thursday that the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic "has come a long way," he provided at least 76 reasons in one tidy sentence to prove his point.

"There will be 76 cameras covering the game on Saturday," said Collins, noting that NBC, CBC, Versus, HBO and the NHL Network all will be on hand to catch every moment.

Among other cameras, NBC will use the cable cams employed for pro football games, using, of course, the cables already installed at Heinz Field. Those above-ice cable-cam vantage points will only add to the big-game atmosphere for the Winter Classic. In addition, NBC will make extensive use of aerial cameras during the game.

Versus is set up here to broadcast Saturday's Washington Capitals-Pittsburgh Penguins matchup in 3D – wheeling the first-ever mobile 3D truck unit onto Heinz Field side street earlier this week. 

HBO is equipped to roll footage for the finale episode of its "24/7 Penguins-Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic," which airs Jan. 5 at 10 p.m. ET and repeats at 11 p.m. ET that night. Some 3 million viewers watched the first "24/7" episode, which HBO President Ross Greenburg says represent "strong audience performance" for the network reality series. Judging by rave reviews for Episode 3, which debuted Wednesday night, there is plenty of rationale to keep watching.

For its part, Collins said the NHL Network will be producing 20 hours of original programming, including a robust six hours on Friday to cover the team practices and set up the starry showdown between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. On Saturday morning, NHL Network starts early with four hours of pregame coverage before the 1 p.m. ET puck drop.

There's more evidence to the rapid growth of the Winter Classic since Crosby and his teammates played the first one at Buffalo in 2008. Last year's Classic between the Flyers and Bruins in Boston was the top trending topic on Twitter, and there is every reason to expect the same this year. The League, Facebook and NBC are collaborating on a Watch and Win contest that will earn some lucky fan a brand new car simply by signing up on Facebook and tuning into NBC's broadcast.

NBC sold out its advertising for the New Year's Day game well in advance, and the League's Winter Classic revenues are up 20 percent from last year. In fact, the Jan. 1 game has helped increase sponsorship and marketing revenues by 66 percent over the last three seasons. A total of $330 million in new sponsorship revenue alone has been added over the last three seasons.

Collins said it all points to a Winter Classic on Saturday that could be "best of all."

"To be here at Heinz Field, the soul of Pittsburgh, where friends and family celebrate and unite, for the Rooneys (who own the Steelers) to make room for us, it's just phenomenal," said Collins. "The Steelers are a first-class organization that expects to be in the playoffs every year. So for them to give up their last two regular-season home dates to make room for the NHL, it's almost too much to hope for."

It's also more proof about just how far the Winter Classic has zoomed in just three years on the calendar.