"Three years ago we talked about a strategy to really build on a League scale. We said we were going to do it through digital media ... and then the other part of the strategy was big events. We knew fans would tune in because they are fans of hockey as opposed to fans of a particular team and we knew it would attract corporate advertisers. We needed to get a lot more money in hockey and people activating in hockey and that's what the Winter Classic has allowed us to do."
-- NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins
Even before he ever sat in a board room with his bosses to discuss the future of outdoor hockey in the NHL, and well before the snow started falling in Buffalo two years ago at the inaugural Winter Classic, ice guru Dan Craig knew what was coming.
"The first one that we did was in Edmonton (Heritage Classic in 2003) and we knew then that it was a matter of time before we were going to do another one," Craig, the League's facilities operations manager, told NHL.com. "Once we did it, you saw the excitement of the people in the stands. I have told my crew to be prepared because this thing is going to take off to places unknown to us. It's only going to get bigger."
The NHL Winter Classic is already huge, but Craig is right when he says it's still only the beginning, still in the infancy stages.
If the NHL has its way, the Winter Classic will become to this league what the Super Bowl already is to the NFL with the only obvious difference being one is a regular-season game and the other is for the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
"What I envision this to be is what it would have been like being involved in the first two or three Super Bowls that were ever played," Craig said. "I don't spend a lot of time in the New York office, but I can feel it and I know it. Nobody has to put me in a board room and tell me this is what we're doing. The writing is on the wall."
According to Don Renzulli, the League's senior vice president for events, there are similarities between the early stages of the Winter Classic and the Super Bowl. Renzulli worked in the NFL for 12 years and had his hands on 10 Super Bowls.
"From hearing stories, the first Super Bowl was really developed in about six months, which is very similar to our game," Renzulli told NHL.com. "The ability is there. We will make it as big as we possibly can with ancillary events around it so when people come in for these things it's more than just a game."
That's already happening.
Sponsorship activation has tripled. The League is hosting a New Year's Eve party at the House of Blues for the second-straight year, but now there are also other parties being held by various sponsors throughout the city.
"It's starting to blossom, and that's how the Super Bowl was built," Renzulli said. "It's not all league driven. It's all the people that want to partner with the league to make it a much bigger event.
"When you look at the Super Bowl, Sports Illustrated, Playboy, Maxim -- all those parties are not associated with the NFL at all, yet those are huge parties and they are big draws," he continued. "That's how leagues build these events. People want to partner with you and they start to break off and do their own things.
"We have come a long way in three years."
The League has adapted to the growth by purchasing its own portable ice making equipment. Craig is also working with the same ice crew that he hand-picked for last year's game at Wrigley Field.
"Three years ago we talked about a strategy to really build on a League scale," NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins told NHL.com. "We said we were going to do it through digital media ... and then the other part of the strategy was big events. We knew fans would tune in because they are fans of hockey as opposed to fans of a particular team and we knew it would attract corporate advertisers. We needed to get a lot more money in hockey and people activating in hockey and that's what the Winter Classic has allowed us to do."
They all credit the snow globe effect that was created by the blizzard in Buffalo during the inaugural Winter Classic as the reason why the NHL has been able to establish a footprint on the New Year's Day sports map.
"College football opened the timeframe (1 p.m. ET on New Year's Day) on TV, but when people were flipping through the channels that day they saw hockey in the snow and people were like, 'What is this?' " Renzulli said. "That's how we started to draw on these new fans. Going into Year Two, there was the question, 'Could it snow?' And, it was a historical venue. Then, in Year Three, another one. Now it's where we go in Year Four, Five and Six that will determine how big this can get."
One of the reasons it got bigger this year is because the League opened the rink up to the community and to the local colleges for the first time. Renzulli and Collins both agree that has been fantastic from commercial and P.R. standpoints.
"You get more people involved," Renzulli said. "If we were going into a football stadium, with Week 17 of the NFL schedule, we would not be able to do that. A baseball stadium gives you that. So, it really all depends on where we go."
Renzulli would not rule out the possibility of the NHL returning to a football venue for the Winter Classic.
"We're not going try to jam it in and go in on a short time frame not knowing if we can get it right, but I think we want to go back to a football stadium at some point," Renzulli said. "The whole idea of this is to get 70,000 in a stadium to watch a hockey game. We came close last year to being in a football stadium and I think we'll come close again next year and the year after. Everybody wants it, which is a good thing. It's nice to be wanted."
The NHL's staff has also developed a clockwork mentality with the Winter Classic. There are hundreds of meetings in the New York office and conference calls around the continent to make sure everything runs smoothly on the ground at the venue.
"Some of the learning has been what a beast it has been in terms of electrifying a market," Collins said. "Buffalo was great, but we rolled in and rolled out and were happy to get the game in and get out in advance of a potential Buffalo Bills home playoff game. In Chicago, we spent a little more time in the market. They were going through their renaissance and they give the Winter Classic credit for pouring gasoline on that fire that they started. Here in Boston, we have seen a phenomenal hockey market across all New England really get lit up at the prospect of this game. It has added a lot to making hockey more relevant and that's what this is really all about.
"We'll see what comes next."
Contact Dan Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org