Winter Classic a new outdoor tradition

NHL Season Preview 2011

While college football has long had an imprint on New Year’s Day, the NHL is gaining a serious toehold as well.

By moving to outdoor stadiums, where it can be played in front of more than 70,000 spectators, the league’s annual Winter Classic has become a bona fide hit among hockey fans as well as the on-ice participants.

This season’s contest will be played at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park (capacity 43,500 for baseball) where the Flyers will take on longtime rivals the New York Rangers. The game will pushed back a day to Jan. 2 and telecast on NBC.

“It’s only a short distance from Broadway to Broad Street, and over the years, these not-so-neighborly teams have provided an assortment of memorable games,” says NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in promoting the match-up.

Ratings should be strong. Last year’s game featured another bitter rivalry — the Washington Capitals at Pittsburgh Penguins, played at football venue Heinz Field — that drew 4.5 million viewers on the Peacock. It was the most-watched regular season game in the U.S. in 36 years.

The Winter Classic, which began in 2008, has been a boon not only for NBC but for HBO as well. For the first time last year, the pay cabler used its successful sports docu series “24/7” for hockey, and this season, “Flyers/Rangers: Road to the NHL Winter Classic,” will begin its first of four episodes Dec. 14.

The series gives an up-close-and-personal look at the players and coaches for each team and gives fans an inside-the-locker-room experience rarely seen before in hockey.

“Taking ’24/7′ into the NHL proved to be a perfect fit,” explains HBO Sports exec producer Nick Bernstein. “The franchise is fashioned on larger-than-life personalities, engaging storylines and unrestricted access. Clearly, we had all those ingredients last December, and the New York-Philadelphia rivalry should spark another terrific series.”

NBC deal raises NHL’s game | NHL embraces digital offerings | Winter Classic a new outdoor tradition