Cross Checks: 2012 Winter Classic

Watch: Gary Bettman on future Classics

January, 2, 2012
1/02/12
11:35
PM ET

Watch: Brad Richards on game-winner

January, 2, 2012
1/02/12
11:34
PM ET

Watch: Brayden Schenn on first NHL goal

January, 2, 2012
1/02/12
11:32
PM ET

Jagr not bothered by Rupp's salute

January, 2, 2012
1/02/12
10:38
PM ET
Jaromir Jagr said he wasn't offended when New York Rangers forward Mike Rupp copied Jagr's trademark salute after Rupp scored the first of two goals against the Philadelphia Flyers on Monday.

"It's fine with me, it's not my signature," Jagr said. "I do it because I was celebrating goals, maybe he does it too. Maybe he's celebrating it like that, I don't know. He doesn't score many goals. That's not against him, I didn't see it, maybe that's the way he celebrates.

"Everybody can do whatever they want."

Earlier in the week, Jagr returned to Pittsburgh where he won two Stanley Cups and scored in a win over the Penguins, performing the salute in front of angry Penguins fans.

Rupp, a former Penguin, initially declined to explain his actions.

"I don't know what you're talking about," he said.

Asked later what he thought about teammate Artem Anisimov's controversial machine gun celebration that was captured on camera by HBO's documentary crew in a recent game against Tampa, Rupp said the machine gun has been "retired."

He insisted he hadn't planned out the salute.

"No pre-thoughts, believe it or not," Rupp said. "I was just kind of excited in the moment."

Rupp mum on interaction with Hartnell

Rupp had some words with Scott Hartnell before the third period but declined to elaborate on what was discussed.

"He just wished me a happy New Year, and I did the same," Rupp said.

"Hopefully, he has a good year and he wished me the same. So it was good. Honestly, I didn't know what he was saying. He was saying something and, obviously, he wasn't happy with something. I don't know."

Briere on opposite side

Danny Briere ended the New York Rangers' season in 2010 when he scored the game-winner in a shootout in Game 82. The Flyers then went on to the Stanley Cup finals.

Given a chance to send Monday's Winter Classic to overtime, Briere was stymied by Henrik Lundqvist on a penalty shot with less than 20 seconds left in regulation.

"All I could think is, this game's going to overtime," Briere said. "I could see it going in, that's all I was thinking about. Unfortunately, he made the save. I tried to surprise him with a quick little shot, but he's also one of the best in shootouts and on breakaways in the league. He made the save. It's disappointing, it's frustrating. I take full credit for this one.

"Even though this was a big game and a game we wanted badly, this is not what we're playing for, this is not our first goal."

LeBrun: Winter Classic grades

January, 2, 2012
1/02/12
10:26
PM ET
Pierre LeBrun grades the 2012 Winter Classic between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers:

Weather

Mother Nature cooperated this time around. A year ago in Pittsburgh, rain affected the start time and the quality of the game. This year, the league got the best weather conditions it has ever had in the five-year history of the Winter Classic. The temperature was 41 degrees, but, more importantly, it was partly cloudy, which is always what organizers hope for. A sunny day is not welcomed for outdoor hockey. The start time was moved two hours for fear that the sun at 1 p.m. ET would damage the ice and the glare would affect the players’ visibility.

In the end, despite a bit of wind, the conditions couldn’t have been better.

Grade: A

The Event

It’s not just about an NHL game. The Winter Classic has grown into a week-long celebration for the host city. Taking the cake this year was the Rangers-Flyers alumni game before more than 45,000 fans. Anyone who was on hand won’t soon forget the reception for Eric Lindros, who was clearly touched by the way the fans welcomed him back 11 years after his bitter exit. It set the tone for a wonderful weekend as the host Flyers paraded their proud past and further cemented their place as one of the strongest and well-run organizations in the league.

Grade: A

Ice Surface

Easily the best of the five Winter Classics. That was our thought Friday when we skated on it at the media skate, comparing it to the quality of the ice at previous Winter Classic media skates. And the response from the players Monday after the game was generally more positive than other years. It will never be perfect. It’s just not possible. But the puck didn’t bounce around nearly as much as other years.

"Way better than I anticipated," Rangers center Brad Richards said.

Flyers center Daniel Briere said the ice conditions did not make him alter what he would have normally done on his penalty shot. In other words, the ice was good enough to treat his penalty shot as a normal attempt.

Grade: B-plus

Flyers

The Flyers came out and controlled most of the puck possession for the opening 40 minutes. But the momentum changed when Sergei Bobrovsky gave up a soft goal to Mike Rupp 2:41 into the third period. The Flyers lost their focus for most of the third period and didn’t generate the same kind of pressure until the end. Of course, having Jaromir Jagr injured and on the bench didn’t help things. Claude Giroux scored a beauty but otherwise, it was again an insufficient effort against a Rangers team they’ve yet to beat in three tries this season.

Grade: C

Rangers

The Rangers were flat to start the game. Head coach John Tortorella adjusted some of his line combinations and it seemed to spark a better effort in the third period.

"The big problem with our game, the first half of that game, was just not having the puck; they had the puck more," Tortorella said. "So we just felt we needed to try to change something, and I'm not sure if that has an effect or not. We just played better. In the third period, we ended up getting to our game underneath the hash marks. I thought we did a really good job going zone to zone, not trying to be too fancy, just trying to gain zone, and then I thought we gained some momentum."

Grade: B-plus
Instant analysis of the 2012 Winter Classic:

THIRD PERIOD
1. The 2012 Winter Classic came down to the resiliency of the New York Rangers. After going down two goals, Mike Rupp scored twice to even things before Brad Richards scored the game winner. Rupp, who played in last year’s Winter Classic, said Sunday that he was more relaxed this year because he knew what to expect, and that experience paid off for him.

2. Flyers coach Peter Laviolette didn’t get the performance he expected from Sergei Bobrovsky when he went with his backup in net over $51 million netminder Ilya Bryzgalov. Richards was able to score the winner when Bobrovsky couldn’t control a rebound.

3. On the opposite end, Henrik Lundqvist was solid for the Rangers. Even after giving up two goals in the second period, Lundqvist recovered to give his team a chance to win. And with 19.6 seconds left in the game, Lundqvist stopped Danny Briere’s penalty shot to seal the victory.

4. The Flyers also missed Jaromir Jagr in the game. Jagr left the ice in the first period, and while he returned to the game, the 39-year-old played only 7:09 in the entire game and spent the entire third period on the bench. Hard to imagine a healthy Jagr wouldn’t have made a difference in a one-goal game. There has not been any word on Jagr’s status.

--ESPN.com

SECOND PERIOD
1. Finally some offense. After a scoreless period, we got three goals in the second period. Seconds before Brayden Schenn opened the scoring, I mentioned that we needed a greasy goal to get things going. And that's what the game got when Schenn went to the net hard and put in a rebound. Oh, and it was his first career NHL goal. Just another Hollywood moment with the HBO cameras rolling.

2. Claude Giroux has been a threat the entire game, looking more comfortable out there than most of the other skaters. Of course, when you grew up in Hearst, Ontario, a town of 6,000 people 10 hours north of Toronto, you get used to playing hockey in frigid temperatures. Today's weather here in Philly is balmy compared to that. Giroux electrified Citizens Bank Park with a beautiful backhand deke on Henrik Lundqvist that made it 2-0.

3. Just moments later Mike Rupp got the Blueshirts on the board and quieted the Flyers' crowd. Rupp's wrist shot from the high slot beat Sergei Bobrovsky. The icing on the cake was Rupp's goal celebration -- a Jaromir Jagr glove-off salute. Got to love it.

4. Speaking of Jagr, he played only one shift early in the second period before taking a permanent spot on the bench, clearly in some sort of discomfort. He's already battled a groin issue earlier in the season, but at this point the Flyers have not announced what was ailing him.

5. The period featured more physicality. Brandon Dubinsky delivered a big check on Marc-Andre Bourdon, and overall both teams finished their checks with the regularity of an indoor game. They don't like each other, and it shows.

--Pierre LeBrun

FIRST PERIOD
1. The Flyers outshot the Rangers 12-9 in the first period and had by far the better of the scoring chances. The Claude Giroux-Scott Hartnell-Jaromir Jagr line was the most impressive forward unit for either team, with the three creating a handful of dangerous scoring opportunities. But Henrik Lundqvist has been solid, and most of the chances, outside of a muffed one-timer from Jakub Voracek to the left of Lundqvist, have come from fairly far out.

2. Speaking of Jagr, the five-time scoring champ who has been such a compelling story this season after playing the last three years in the Kontinental Hockey League, left the ice with about three minutes left in the first period and did not return. We could see the big winger walking down the rubber pathway to the locker room, and he didn’t seem to be injured, but that’s something to keep an eye on heading into the second period. There was no update from the Flyers’ PR staff. Looks like he's on the bench for the second period.

3. The big story leading up to the Winter Classic was the decision by Philadelphia head coach to bench starter Ilya Bryzgalov in favor of youngster Sergei Bobrovsky. The Rangers did not test Bobrovsky severely in the first period, although with a couple of chances they seemed to be trying to beat the netminder high. The goaltending story isn’t going away for the Flyers, but Bobrovsky has been terrific with an 8-2-1 record. As for Bryzgalov, who signed a nine-year, $51 million deal in the offseason, he joked on Sunday that he would be bringing a thermos to keep warm on the bench. No sign of the thermos on Monday.

4. For outdoors play, the ice is a constant factor. Rangers forward Mike Rupp, who played in last year’s outdoor game while with the Pittsburgh Penguins, talked about needing to get a lead because as the day goes on the tape-to-tape passes become more difficult to complete. Still, this surface is best of the five Winter Classic games by far.

5. Obviously, getting that lead will be key as the game moves along (there’s a bold statement), but the Flyers looked more comfortable in their passing game, and the Rangers will need to find a way to get more pucks on net and to create more chances. The Rangers had a brief power play late in the first that was cut short by a Brad Richards penalty. The Flyers, likewise, could not capitalize on their resulting power play, truncated as it was.

--Scott Burnside

Chat wrap: Winter Classic

January, 2, 2012
1/02/12
10:20
AM ET

Join Scott Burnside, Pierre LeBrun and the rest of the ESPN NHL crew as we watch the Rangers face the Flyers in the 2012 Winter Classic on Monday at 3 p.m. ET.

Watch: Rupp, Dubinsky ready to play

January, 1, 2012
1/01/12
6:55
PM ET

Mike Rupp more relaxed for his second Winter Classic:



Brandon Dubinsky anxious to play the game:

Watch: Giroux, Briere excited for Classic

January, 1, 2012
1/01/12
6:49
PM ET

Claude Giroux on playing outdoors while growing up in Hearst, Ontario:



Danny Briere on sharing the Winter Classic experience with his family:

Mathieu Schneider remembers his first NHL game in Philadelphia after playing in the alumni game at Citizens Bank Park:


PHILADELPHIA -- Even at 66 years old and his legacy secure in hockey history, Bernie Parent was nervous heading into Saturday’s Winter Classic alumni game.

"You’re a competitor,” he explained. “It never leaves you.”

The Hall of Fame goalie hadn’t played in decades and shoulder replacement surgery in June meant his training was limited. Ten days, to be exact.

“Only 10 days of skating out of 30 years -- that’s not much,” Parent said after the game, a 3-1 Flyers win in which Parent played the first five minutes.

In those five minutes, Parent was tested and decades of time off didn’t remove the fight from a guy who led the Flyers to two Stanley Cups. He was perfect on six shots -- even diving to stop one. The Citizens Bank Park crowd was quick to chant his name.

Ron Duguay, the former Rangers forward who once scored 40 goals in a season, had a breakaway opportunity on Parent that was just long enough for Parent to prepare.

“I said, ‘Lord, save me one more time.’ He did,” Parent said. “I was fortunate they went easy on me for the first five minutes. What a great experience. ... Just to go out on the ice and this big crowd and perform again? C’mon. It doesn’t get any better.”

Those watching Parent enjoyed it as much as he did. For a new generation of hockey fans in Philadelphia, it was a rare chance to see one of the greats in action. It was a chance to put a visual with all of the stories. Even for a few short minutes.

For others who grew up idolizing him, such as Rangers goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, it was a chance to share how much he meant to their hockey fandom.

“You can’t describe it. I said it to him a bunch of times, how much honor and respect a young goalie from Detroit, Michigan -- 5-8 1/2, 170 pounds -- has for a guy like Bernie, who is basically the same size,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “Whether he realizes it or not -- I think he may tonight when he puts his head on the pillow -- but man, this is something. For him, this is a Hall of Fame night.”

----

When he was asked to play in the alumni game, Mark Howe made a request back. He requested that he be allowed to wear the No. 10 of former defense partner Brad McCrimmon on his Winter Classic jersey. McCrimmon was the coach of the Lokomotiv team that was killed in the Russian plane crash this summer.

But it wasn’t just Howe who honored one of the most popular players of his era. The entire Flyers team had a No. 10 patch on their shoulder. It was a nice touch to remember a player who would have thoroughly enjoyed lacing up the skates in front of the Philadelphia fans one more time.

“He would have loved it,” Howe said. “He would have been a part of this.”

Howe said McCrimmon’s family is traveling to Philadelphia to be a part of the Winter Classic and that the rugged defenseman’s years here were among his most favorite. Howe wanted to make sure his close friend was a part of this special moment in Philadelphia hockey history.

“I want to make sure his family, they get recognized,” Howe said. “People who talk to Brad, if you talk to his family, although Brad was well-respected wherever he went, his favorite place to play was in Philadelphia.”

----

John Vanbiesbrouck admitted he was also a bit nervous before the alumni game -- not because of how he might perform, but how the game might be received.

“We can’t forget why we do this; we do this for the fans. I know there were questions before, like who wants to watch a bunch of 50-year-old guys play. But if the fans do, then let’s do it,” Vanbiesbrouck told ESPN.com.

“Maybe once a year, we don’t have to do it every week like the senior tour. But maybe once a year. Look, for us it’s an honor to throw it back on and go out there and feel the bumps and bruises. I mean, I’ve got a little groin pull here going on."

Vanbiesbrouck, who hadn’t had his pads on since a 2006 reunion game with his former Florida Panther teammates, is part-owner of a company called FASTHockey.com that provides live streaming of a variety of hockey events.

----

Defenseman Mathieu Schneider played as recently as the 2009-10 season and is now the special assistant to National Hockey League Players’ Association executive director Donald Fehr, but still sounded like a
wide-eyed kid after the alumni game.

“It’s really a lot of fun,” Schneider told ESPN.com. "I think when you’re out there with legends like Mess [Mark Messier] and Leetchie [Brian Leetch] and Bobby Clarke on the other side -- Big E [Eric Lindros] got the biggest ovation tonight. It’s great to see. Someone once told me your past defines you, your history defines you. I truly believe that. This is a tremendous sports town; it’s a great place to have an event like this. It’s just fun to be in the dressing room atmosphere. It just makes you really appreciate what you had for a long time."

----

Forced to retire at age 22 because of a shoulder injury, former Rangers goaltender Dan Blackburn was thrilled to put the pads back on for Saturday's alumni game.

"It was great," he said. "Highlight of my hockey career."

Blackburn, whose career ended after only two seasons with the Blueshirts because of nerve damage, wore two blockers instead of the traditional blocker/catcher set -- something he has had to do since suffering the injury.

The 28-year-old netminder, who now works in real estate, gave up only one goal -- on a penalty shot to Flyers legend Mark Howe.

"I don't like getting scored on but I guess if you're going to get scored on by a Hall of Fame guy, it's not the worst thing that can happen," he said.

----

Flyers GM Paul Holmgren sounded almost overwhelmed after Saturday's alumni game when sizing up the experience.

"It was pretty cool,'' he told ESPN.com. "I was walking around the stands a little bit, trying to find out where my family was sitting. There was a lady literally crying saying, 'This is great.' It's a neat experience for the city and a real celebration of hockey in our town.''

-- Scott Burnside, Pierre LeBrun and Katie Strang contributed to this report.

Photos: Winter Classic alumni game

December, 31, 2011
12/31/11
4:44
PM ET
Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Citizens Bank ParkDave Sandford/NHLI via Getty ImagesWith the sun shining directly on the ice on Saturday, the ice stayed covered until about an hour before the alumni game.
Mark Recchi, John LeClair, Eric Lindros and Jeremy RoenickDave Sandford/NHLI via Getty ImagesThere were some familiar names on the back of the jerseys in the Flyers' locker room.
Mike Gartner, John VanbiesbroukJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesMike Gartner and John Vanbiesbrouck talk during warmups.
Eric LindrosLen Redkoles/NHLI via Getty ImagesEric Lindros received the loudest reception from the Philadelphia fans.
Bernie ParentDave Sandford/Getty Images"Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!" echoed throughout the park for the affable goalie Bernie Parent.
New York Rangers AlumniBrian Babineau/Getty ImagesMark Messier and the Rangers alumni celebrate a goal.
Mark HoweJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesMark Howe scores on a penalty shot against Dan Blackburn in the third period.


PHILADELPHIA -- He was just about to leave Citizens Bank Park on Friday en route to the Flyers’ practice facility in Voorhees, N.J., when I grabbed Eric Lindros for one quick second.

I had been curious about one thing: Since the news came out in October that Lindros was invited to play for the Flyers in the Winter Classic alumni game, had Lindros spoken at all with Bobby Clarke?

"No," Lindros told ESPN.com, before adding with a smile, "but it’s off to practice now."

At that practice, Lindros and Clarke would, in fact, finally speak.

"Sure, we talked," Clarke told ESPN.com via cell phone Friday evening. "It was fine. I asked him how his brother was doing. He asked me about my family. We’re fine. There’s really no animosity."

So there, Kumbaya in the City of Brotherly Love, OK?

Not ever before has an alumni game carried this much buzz, nor will one ever again in all likelihood. But the reunion of the Big E and Bobby on the same ice surface in front of 40,000-plus fans on New Year’s Eve is about as good as it gets in this town.

When Lindros arrived at the ballpark on Friday afternoon, he was soon swarmed by a large media scrum on the field. After finishing with questions, cameras followed his every step across the field as he headed towards the makeshift ice rink that will host Monday’s real NHL game.

Make no mistake about it, despite all the bad blood and the ugly exit, Lindros remains a huge star in this town. When he stepped on the ice at practice on Friday, he was cheered loudly by the fans on hand.

"It’s very nice to see Eric here, he’s a huge part of Philadelphia Flyers history with everything he did on the ice, the way he carried himself -- he was a hard-nosed player and showed up every night," former Flyers teammate Shjohn Podein told ESPN.com at Citizens Bank Park on Friday. "To have him welcomed back and embraced like this by the fans will be nice to see."

Lindros was guarded in his answers Friday, and, during previous interviews over the last month, he’s also kept his comments largely to a minimum when it came to rehashing his past battles with Clarke.

In an email to ESPN.com on Oct. 27, Lindros dealt with the subject with more detail and said it was the last time he wanted to go into it to that degree. Lindros' email was spurred by Clarke’s comments to ESPN.com the same day in which he expressed the desire to move on, that he felt Lindros deserved to be invited to the Winter Classic alumni game because he played great hockey for the team. But the former Flyers general manager added that, to this day, he still has issue with the interference he felt Lindros’ parents had on the player’s career in Philly.

Responded Lindros that day to ESPN.com:

"I've been excited since I received a phone call from Paul Holmgren inviting me to represent the Flyers and Flyer fans at the alumni game of the Winter Classic weekend," he said. "Old friends from Philly have been blowing up my phone ever since word got out. I can't wait to get back there, see them and play for the fans again. Looks to be a great event. It was very nice of Bob to say some of the things he has said, and I too look forward to catching up with him.

"While a great deal of time has passed, my beliefs on the subject of my representation have not. I had great representatives looking out for my best interests and safety. They just happened to be my parents. In the past, I have not found it worth my time to discuss and publicize much of what went on. Maybe I should have. Maybe that was a mistake. But I still, to this day, don't see the point. With that said, everyone is welcome to their opinion. Reading what Bob said and knowing him, well, that's just Bob's way.

"Time to move on with more important things. I am so excited to be heading back to Philly in January and more than likely before that. It’s going to be a great weekend. I will not have played in a game this big for almost five [years]. Pumped!"


Just an alumni game on Saturday? Don’t think so.

-- Pierre LeBrun

Philadelphia buzzing about Classic

Jim Watson has his name on two Stanley Cups -- the two won by the Philadelphia Flyers in the mid-1970s. They represent the sum total of championships won by the franchise. Watson, 59, has remained in the Philadelphia area and remained close to the game, establishing a twin-pad hockey rink in Delaware County 15 years ago. The demand was so great for ice that he and his partners doubled up with two more pads, which run nonstop throughout the year.

"Being there at the rink, we’ve got a big tournament going on there right now with about 100 teams, that’s all anybody’s talking about is the Winter Classic. 'Jim, you playing, I’m coming down, can you get me tickets?' But they’re so excited about it," Watson said.

"It’s given hockey a great boost in the city of Philadelphia and the surrounding areas but also in general nationally."

And yes, Watson, who took part in five NHL All-Star Games and played in the 1976 Canada Cup, will be taking part in the sold-out alumni game along with his brother Joe, with whom he won those championships.

"I’m a late addition," he said with a laugh. "They want a rushing defenseman. They called me up and they said, 'Somebody’s got to bail out Joe so you’ve got to be there to help him.' "

--Scott Burnside
PHILADELPHIA -- In the crazy world of making ice, where ice doesn’t usually form, surprisingly more is better.

As in, the more people on the temporary sheet of ice at Citizens Bank Park, the better things will be for Monday’s Winter Classic featuring the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Rangers as far as ice magician Dan Craig is concerned.

This is pretty much the opposite of what you might imagine would be the case.

“Absolutely. Dan, he loves it, for him it’s a good thing,” explained Don Renzulli, senior vice president of events for the NHL. "We’re probably going to get more play this year than in any year prior, so he’ll have enough people on the ice that it should be in pristine condition for practices and game day."

While it’s not exactly like a fine wine, Craig explained that the more people use the ice, whether it’s the media who skated and then engaged in some shinny hockey Friday afternoon, or local police officers who played later in the afternoon, the ice actually improves the more it's used.

“It’s tempering is what it is,” Craig told ESPN.com on Friday.

“The more that you skate on it, every skate cut, and then you put hot water back into it, you’re inter-weaving so you get a better density on the sheet of ice, and density is the No. 1 thing that you want,” Craig said.

In terms of the quality of the ice with the Winter Classic still three days away, Craig said he was happy, well, as happy as he ever gets before this game.

The weather, of course, will be a constant backdrop to the Winter Classic story, as it always is.

The bright sun on Friday forced the delay of the media skate and media shinny game Friday as Craig was reluctant to remove the tarps covering the ice surface for fear of melting. And a similar forecast for Saturday led officials to move the much-anticipated game between Philadelphia and New York Rangers alumni back, to a 3 p.m. start, when the sun’s impact will be lessened.

“What’s different about this is we have the alumni game sold out tomorrow, we actually have a police game tonight, so it puts a little bit of stress on everybody on the front side,” Renzulli told ESPN.com. "We had some rain and some winds the other day that probably set us back a little bit, but we’re caught up and we’re not going to totally finish everything off for the alumni game because I want to keep a few things special for our game."

For those wondering what the prospects were for an on-time puck drop on Monday, especially after last year’s persistent rain forced the delay of the game in Pittsburgh, so far so good. Earlier predictions of rain are giving way to a forecast of snow flurries for Monday afternoon.

“We’ve got warm temperatures the next couple of days, it’s supposed to get down in the 40s, and with wind I’m guessing we’ll be in the high-30s game day. And if we get a little snow, that’d be great,” he said.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

5 things: Winter Classic edition

December, 30, 2011
12/30/11
11:06
AM ET
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.

[+] EnlargeFenway Scoreboard
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaA Zamboni rides in front of the Green Monster scoreboard before the 2010 outdoor game.
“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"?

[+] EnlargeWinter Classic ice
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesDuring the 2011 Winter Classic, crews had to remove excess water from the ice during stoppages in the game.
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.

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