PHILADELPHIA -- Sitting on the stage built overtop the Philadelphia Phillies dugout, Glen Sather's ears buzzed Monday as the roughly 1,500 Philadelphia Flyers season ticket holders in the stands at Citizens Bank Park gave him a calm and respectful round of applause.
Sather, the New York Rangers president and GM, sauntered to the podium and admitted how awkward he felt being at what he called "a pep rally in Philadelphia, adding that he couldn't believe he got a round of applause in Philadelphia -- even if it was a celebratory press conference to announce the 2012 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic between Sather's Rangers and the hometown Flyers.
But after lauding the Flyers and their founder and owner Ed Snider, Sather fired a salvo that brought out the reaction he and the Rangers are used to receiving here in the City of Brotherly Love.
"We are going to come to Philadelphia and we are going to win," Sather said, staring right into the stands, filled with orange-clad fans of the Flyers.
Everyone booed, loudly.
"Clearly this has become one of the most anticipated sports events on the annual calendar... We've faced a variety of challenges, and that is one of the elements that adds to the legend of this event. In many ways the lead up to the game itself is the ultimate in reality TV. " -- NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman
"Now that's more like it," he continued. "I knew I could get a rise out of you sooner or later."
Sather and the Rangers plan to get a rise out of the 45,000 or so fans that will pack this ballpark at 1 p.m. ET on Jan. 2 for the 2012 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic (NBC, CBC, RDS).
As NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman noted after finally confirming what he called "the worst-kept secret in sport" -- that the NHL's fifth Winter Classic game will be played at Citizens Bank Park -- the Flyers and Rangers, division rivals since 1974 and now the closest geographic rivals to compete in a Winter Classic, have played against one another a combined 308 times, including regular season and postseason.
They will face each other twice more before Jan. 2, but a new chapter of this storied rivalry will most definitely be written when they skate together on the rink that will run from first base to third base, from the baseball homes of Ryan Howard to Mike Schmidt.
"Clearly this has become one of the most anticipated sports events on the annual calendar," Bettman said. "It generates excitement, anticipation, attention for our game, our players and the League, and it also provides a lot of air time for weathermen and weatherwomen. We've played in snow. We've played in rain. We've played in extreme cold. We've faced a variety of challenges, and that is one of the elements that adds to the legend of this event. In many ways the lead up to the game itself is the ultimate in reality TV."
For the second consecutive year, the NHL will mix with reality TV as HBO Sports' Emmy Award-winning and critically acclaimed "24/7" series will go inside the two teams as they gear up to the Winter Classic. HBO will air four episodes of "24/7: Flyers/Rangers: Road to the Winter Classic" beginning at 10 p.m. ET on Dec. 14 and running every Wednesday through Jan. 4.
This past season, the "24/7" series followed the Penguins and Capitals through the 2011 NHL Winter Classic game, which was the NHL's most watched regular-season game in 36 years. HBO took home two trophies at the 2011 Sports Emmy Awards for its work on "24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic." The "24/7" series has garnered 14 Sports Emmy Awards in the past four years.
"Let me be totally honest, I grew up in Alabama, I didn't grow up as a hockey fan, and I had no idea what to expect with this series -- but the access we got is what made it that much better and what exceeded all of our expectations," said HBO Sports Executive Producer Rick Bernstein. "I don't think there has ever been a time when any major sport has allowed a television entity inside their domain as the NHL has with this show, and allowed us to show one week later what happened in that prior week."
As has become tradition in the host city for the Winter Classic, the regular-season NHL game won't be the only event that takes place on and around the ice surface. Peter Luukko, the President and COO of Comcast Spectacor, announced that Citizens Bank Park will also play host to an alumni game between the Rangers and Flyers on Dec. 31 and the Adirondack Phantoms, the Flyers AHL affiliate, will return to Philadelphia to play the Hershey Bears on Jan. 6 at 7 p.m. ET.
Luukko also said there are ongoing talks to bring some high school and college hockey to Citizens Bank Park as well as some public skating.
"The whole idea behind this is to really get everybody in the marketplace to have that opportunity to see a game outdoors. There is nothing better than it," Luukko said. "We're really going to make us the focal point of the hockey world for not just a day, but for a week. We're just going to start the new year off in the right way."
The players, the characters in this real-life drama, are genuinely thrilled, as well.
Many of the Flyers have already played in the Winter Classic before when Philadelphia was the road team at Fenway Park in Boston in 2009, but captain Chris Pronger said getting a home game makes it that much more special.
"I just remember skating around at Fenway, the crisp air, you remember back to the glory days of playing on the outdoor rinks and lakes," Pronger said. "It's a lot of fun and it brings back a lot of fond memories. It picks you up and gives you that extra boost."
This Winter Classic will be extra special for James van Riemsdyk, who is from Middletown, N.J., pretty much the halfway point between Citizens Bank Park and Madison Square Garden.
"Growing up on the other end, rooting for the Rangers, now to be on this end and playing outside against them is definitely going to be pretty cool," van Riemsdyk said. "It brings more of a hometown feel for me, too."
Rangers captain Ryan Callahan figured since the Rangers are an Original Six team, one of the most historic franchises in the United States, that it was just a matter of time before they got the chance to play in a Winter Classic. Still, Callahan was disappointed each time the Winter Classic was announced and the Rangers weren't involved just because he wants to play in this game so badly.
"Just seeing the atmosphere of it, the whole event, the whole day, how many fans are at the ballpark, it's something that is good for the game and I'm glad to be a part of it," Callahan said. "It's a game I want to play in."
The rivalry aspect only adds to the reality of it.
"When Keith Jones introduced the Rangers here today and everybody clapped politely for them, it was a first for me in 40-something years," Snider said.
Added Sather: "We do expect to give you some challenges."