5 things: Winter Classic edition

The fifth NHL Winter Classic outdoor game between the host Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers at Citizens Bank Park is less than a week away. Here are five things about the event:

1. You’ve come a long way baby

Back in January 2008 at Ralph Wilson Stadium, no one knew exactly what to expect. The NHL was going to play outside? In Buffalo? In January? Ha, ha. Good gag.

Among those who had no idea just how this was going to turn out was Dan Craig, the NHL’s official ice guru who has become something of a legend at these events, turning NFL football fields (they’re higher in the middle, you know, actually convex, not flat) and historic baseball parks into temporary homes for NHL players and more than 200,000 fans. Without the benefit of the cutting-edge technology he now possesses, Craig recalls going pretty much on gut as he was building that first surface.

“I was just going with my instincts,” the Edmonton native told ESPN.com earlier this week.

A year later, when the Winter Classic rolled into Wrigley Field in Chicago, the NHL had invested about $1 million in a portable ice-making truck that would take a lot of the guesswork out of building an NHL-ready sheet of ice for Craig and his ice crew.

Even now Craig is finding ways of refining the equipment and using it to make better ice under a variety of conditions.

But that first Winter Classic involved a lot more guesswork and eyeballing of the product than is now the case.

“Now everything’s computerized,” Craig said.

Not that that first game was necessarily a classic in terms of the ice quality or the quality of play, but, in the end, the images provided by the fluffy snow and the packed house trumped the deteriorating quality of the ice. And by the time Sidney Crosby shoveled home the shootout winner for the Pittsburgh Penguins, the game had lived up to its billing and the NHL was off to the races with one of those think-outside-the-box home runs that folks dream all their lives of hitting.

Who knows how this turns out if the snow that day was rain or if it had snowed just a little more or a little earlier? Had that first one been a bust, chances are the concept would have gone back into that dark corner office with the glowing pucks and Cleveland Barons jerseys. But it didn’t.

2. Hello Philly

We’ve been fortunate enough to have covered all of the Winter Classics (we weren’t, thankfully, in Edmonton at the Heritage Classic before the lockout when someone decided it would be a good idea to play in the dark in late November and players nearly froze their, well, fingers and toes off while the ice disintegrated in the sub-Arctic temperatures). And there is still something that produces something akin to awe when you first walk into the stadium and see a shiny ice surface and the familiar boards and glass of an NHL rink sitting incongruously in the middle of a baseball infield or somewhere around midfield of an NFL stadium. Those are the images that fans in attendance drink in and that give pause to people at home who are flicking around the dial: whoa, that’s cool.

There are lots of cynics (strangely, most of them are among the Canadian media, some of whom have never even been to a Winter Classic) who suggest these optics speak more to gimmickry than to spectacle, that playing outdoors in a foreign location isn’t about the roots of the game but something less wholesome. Maybe. But even seeing the pictures coming out of Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia as the rink slowly takes over a field that only a couple of years ago was home to a World Series champion is intriguing to people who have made the game a monster television and merchandising event.

And one assumes it will be so again on Jan. 2 when the Rangers and Flyers do battle somewhere over second base. Last year’s Penguins-Capitals game drew an average audience of 4.5 million and the 2008, 2009 and 2011 games all reached milestones as the highest-rated regular-season NHL games since the 1970s. With two of the biggest American markets in the game, no reason to assume anything will be different this time around.

3. Lights, camera, action

For the second straight year, the Winter Classic dovetails with the four-part HBO reality series "24/7: Road To The Winter Classic." The series once again provides a compelling hitherto unseen look at the lives of NHL players and the game itself. Last year’s series won an Emmy for outstanding edited sports special and, judging from the quality of this year’s series, it’s not going anywhere soon (unless it’s to a playoff series, which is a story for another day).

Tying the series to the Winter Classic proved to be a stroke of genius. The outdoor game provides a natural end point for the series while allowing viewers inside the game in the middle of the season, something that HBO’s NFL training camp series "Hard Knocks" lacks. Perhaps most illuminating has been the willingness of NHL types, whose reputations suggest a near manic opposition to open their doors to the previously fiercely guarded inner sanctum and thus opening their doors to a whole new segment of the population.

We recall talking to Washington GM George McPhee and his Pittsburgh counterpart Ray Shero in the moments after last year’s Winter Classic. Remember that was a game that had to be rescheduled because of rain and yet both insisted they would do it again in a heartbeat.

“I still feel the same way,” McPhee told ESPN.com this week, describing the HBO series and the Winter Classic as “some of the most fun I’ve experienced in the game.”

Does all of this truly help reach that mystical "casual fan"?

Comcast in the Washington-Baltimore area saw a whopping 25 percent increase in viewership on its local broadcasts of Caps games after the start of the "24/7" series, or an increase of 10,000 viewers per game. If the league’s longstanding bugaboo has been selling the game beyond the die-hard fan, the Winter Classic property -- which now includes HBO’s involvement -- has helped to achieve that goal at least in some measure.

4. Really real

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is fond of saying the Winter Classic is the ultimate in reality television. That was borne out a year ago when a persistent weather front dropped buckets of rain on Heinz Field, forcing league officials to move the game from the afternoon to the evening of Jan. 1.

Rain was expected early in the week for Philadelphia this week, but weather forecasters indicate the rain will stop and temperatures will drop in time for the media to enjoy its annual skate on Dec. 30. The Pittsburgh experience reinforces that it’s not so much the actual temperature that’s the issue but the precipitation. Still, the quality of the ice is night and day from that first go-around in Buffalo.

“You can’t control [the weather] but you can monitor it,” Craig explained.

You know what’s coming six hours ahead and you make adjustments based on what you think is coming down the pipe. Sometimes that means hunkering down and hoping that the six hours after that, or the six hours after that gives you something you can work with.

So far, the long-range forecast for Philadelphia suggests things should be better than a year ago, when the rain made the ice look nice and shiny but made for a disjointed game.

Also, Craig has had to adjust to different elevations between the refrigeration unit and the rink, which means there is a different time lag in getting temperatures adjusted in the truck and then on the rink. All in a day’s work for a guy who will spend most of his time during warm-ups and the game staring intently at how players’ skates interact with the ice and how the puck reacts.

"There’s a game?” said Craig, who probably won’t see the entire product on tape for six months.

5. Come one, come all

One of the most important evolutions of the event has been the focus of host cities and teams on getting as many people on the ice as possible. If the Winter Classic is truly a celebration of the sport and its roots -- "a festival of hockey," as COO John Collins likes to call it -- then it behooves teams like the Flyers to make sure that it is so.

This year a myriad of hockey groups representing all kinds of demographics and age groups and abilities will take to the ice at Citizens Bank Park. The alumni game is now a staple of the event, although it still mystifies as to why people care whether Eric Lindros (yes he will) or Wayne Gretzky (no he won’t) will take part. Still, great for fans to see the team’s former greats or near greats or just those who live nearby take to the ice again. Personally, we are looking forward to seeing Rick Tocchet, who is the alumni version of Ty Conklin taking part in the alumni game a year ago between former Caps and Penguins.

Beyond the alumni tilt on Saturday, the rink at Citizens Bank Park will get a workout courtesy of Penn State vs. Neumann University after the Winter Classic, on Jan. 4, and a day later Drexel and Villanova will do battle.

The Flyers’ AHL affiliate, the Phantoms, will get a chance to play and various local high school teams will get a chance to strut their stuff. In the spirit of Denis Leary, local police and firefighters will test their on-ice mettle, and there are a number of public skates scheduled, which, for a team that has a rich history of promoting the game at the grassroots level, ensures the Winter Classic will mean a lot more than just the ratings bonanza of Jan. 2. As it should be.