NEW YORK -- The atmosphere at the NHL Winter Classic is what strikes a chord with Bob Costas every time he arrives on scene for NBC.
"In each case, for different reasons, it felt like something unique and special," Costas told the NHL Network on Wednesday.
Costas will again lead NBC's Winter Classic coverage on Jan. 2 at Citizens Bank Park. He has been involved since Day 1 in Buffalo -- Jan. 1, 2008, when the blizzard, Costas said, gave Ralph Wilson Stadium and the surrounding area "a snow globe effect on television and American audiences were not used to seeing hockey this way."
He was also in Chicago in 2009, Boston in 2010 and, of course, Pittsburgh last season -- but the images from Buffalo are still what Costas thinks of when he talks about the Winter Classic.
He said NBC and the NHL got lucky that the afternoon included heavy snowfall, because it played well on television and it made the players and fans inside Ralph Wilson Stadium truly feel like they were part of a compelling piece of history in the making.
"Before they even dropped the puck to start the game, you instantly felt that this was something different and there was something really cool about this," Costas said. "All of us at NBC, everyone in the stands, and most importantly all of the players understood that this was something not just out of the ordinary, but this was something that was going to be tremendously successful and really hit the spot."
The Winter Classic ratings have continued to get better, and last year's game between the Penguins and Capitals became the most watched NHL regular season game in 36 years with 4.5 million tuning in. But Costas said the NHL's marquee event goes beyond ratings and into buzz-worthy territory.
"There's an event-quality to it," he said. "It brings in not just hard-core fans, but it brings in causal fans. There is a buzz in the aftermath. Franchises vie to be the host of the actual event. There's a benefit beyond the raw rating, and the raw rating is very good for a regular season game, but beyond that it raises the profile of the League in a very positive way."
The images of thousands of fans on the streets in Wrigleyville before the game in Chicago are still striking to Costas. So, too, is remembering what it looked like on the outfield facing at Fenway Park, where the retired Bruins numbers were placed next to the retired Red Sox numbers.
"I thought that was a great nod toward hockey in an iconic baseball venue," Costas said.
Costas said the NHL and NBC got lucky again last year, when rain in Pittsburgh forced what was supposed to be an afternoon game between the Penguins and Capitals into primetime, under the lights at Heinz Field. Not only was it "striking" and "arresting," in Costas' words, to people channel surfing at home, but it also gave fans with tickets to the game several more hours to get fired up.
"That kicked it up a notch," Costas said. "The anticipation built and built when it was moved back several hours, then these people show up at night and there was sort of a giddy, party atmosphere about it. And they themselves weren't used to seeing a game A) outdoors, and then B) at night under the lights. I mean, this isn't baseball or football, where that kind of stuff is commonplace."
Costas said he believes the NHL and NBC have kicked it up even a few more notches this year by having a Philadelphia-New York rivalry game.
First off, he said, having the New York market involved should bump up the rating. But Costas, showing his 2011-12 NHL acumen, also noted that the Flyers and Rangers are two of the best teams in the Eastern Conference -- they're separated by just two points heading into Wednesday's action -- and that will also play well to the masses.
However, he said this one should be all about the history and rivalry between the teams and their cities as much as the venue and the still unknown weather.
"You know, at Citizens Bank Park, when the Mets come to Philadelphia, there is no love lost, especially a couple of years ago when the Mets and Phillies were both contenders," Costas said. "You don't have to really prompt Philadelphia fans to feel venomous to really any opposition, especially if the opposition is wearing a New York uniform."
That's very much the case when it comes to Rangers-Flyers, and there are backstories to it all that NBC and Costas plan to tell prior to the opening faceoff on Jan. 2.
"People need to know what the subplots are, what the backstories are," Costas said, "and there are lots you can sink your teeth into with this one."
It can only be made better if Mother Nature creates the memorable atmosphere to add to the drama.
"We have our fingers crossed that on Jan. 2 in Philadelphia it'll be snowing," Costas said. "Not a blizzard, not wind blowing, but a nice, gentle Currier & Ives snowfall with the flakes descending around the players. That's what we're hoping for, the atmospherics."