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Winter Classic A Sign Of The NHL's Strength And Pittsburgh's Growing Love For Hockey

It's a bit of a culture shock returning to Pittsburgh after a self-imposed exile to California. While the left coast has its own sporting culture and traditions, nothing quite hits you coming off of an airplane, aside from the unmistakable smell of fried food, like the lifetime love affair with sport that Western Pennsylvania has.

The first sign to the typical outsider of Pittsburgh's sporting culture is the immaculately rendered Franco Harris statue guarding the top of a set of escalators at Pittsburgh International Airport, an idol that must be passed to venture forth into the city. But this December, poor, old Franco was sadly out-gunned by a barrage of 2011 NHL Winter Classic porn adorning the walls and shops of the airport, begging one to buy a Penguins throwback jersey or winter beanie.

With all of this pageantry in mind, one thing has been obvious over the last few weeks: the Winter Classic has temporarily transformed Pittsburgh from, as the t-shirt says, "a drinking town with a football problem," into "a drinking town with a hockey problem and football dependency issues." 

In a basic sense, the Winter Classic is simply one of 1,230 hockey games taking place in an NHL season, and its largest tangible significance is that of any regular season game: two points. But since the inaugural Winter Classic, the NHL has quickly learned how to promote the event and, as Seth Rorabaugh eloquently explained, has done wonders in transforming the Winter Classic into a massive celebration of hockey's heritage.

It's already clear that the game was a success, and more evidence of the Winter Classic's success should trickle out over the next few days. In mid-December, the league was already projecting that the event would raise 20% more revenue than last year's Winter Classic between Boston and Philadelphia, through everything from ticket sales to sponsorships. Overnight ratings look similarly successful, with the Winter Classic scoring a win amongst network viewers aged 18-49 and reaching approximately 4.56 million viewers. Meanwhile, the Penguins' and Capitals' beloved throwback jerseys are quickly selling out, with sales sitting around 38,000 between the two teams. 

To put this all into perspective for a moment: the most sought after jerseys in the NHL and the cornerstone of the league's marketing efforts are throwback jerseys for the Penguins and Capitals. The Penguins' jersey is a mock design, one never used by the franchise, based on an unused logo from an era of remarkable mediocrity.

The Capitals' throwback jersey, meanwhile, hearkens back to a twenty-year period of Capitals history where the team won no championships and suffered several late-season collapses, most notable of which occurred against the hated Penguins:

Regardless, as the numbers show, jerseys have been gobbled up en masse and the teams are the better for it, their current successes overriding their earlier history of failure.

Selling the fans on the game was a key to its success, but even more integral to the perception of the game was selling it to the players as well. It worked. Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau even went as far as to compare winning the Winter Classic to taking home the Stanley Cup:

"This is like as close to the Stanley Cup as we've gotten," Boudreau said. "We're not denying that it was more than just two points. It was a fabulous game. And we came in wanting to win this thing."

A bit over the top? Perhaps. Every Capital in the locker room would undoubtedly throw away the win in a heartbeat for a Stanley Cup. Still, the fact that a regular season game could conjure up such sentiments is an accomplishment in itself.

While similarly jovial sentiments would have been unlikely to come from the Penguins' locker room, especially following a bitterly-contested game between teams at the epoch of their rivalry, few Penguins would consider the Winter Classic just another game or simply two points lost:

"It's an amazing feeling [playing in the classic]. And I said the same thing when we played in Buffalo," [Sidney] Crosby said. "But it's pretty easy to see why you see (NFL players) so pumped up every week. Coming down the tunnel, it's a pretty amazing feeling. And playing hockey in front of that many people, it's something that probably none of us ever dreamed of doing."

The game itself, though, was something of a different story. Though players have said otherwise, conditions on the rink were bad enough to significantly impair the ability of most players. Constant rain (which forced the game to be preemptively postponed for several hours) and unseasonably warm temperatures turned the outdoor rink into a slick, watery mess that lead to bouncing pucks and some memorable mishaps:

No matter. While the game was hardly a showcase for the game at its top level, it was a showcase for the league, an event that proved the NHL could continue to reinvent itself on a national scale. This was all about selling hockey's atmosphere and tradition. Though the city of Pittsburgh may not see another Winter Classic for some time, it acquitted itself well on a memorably wet New Year's Day and set a strong standard for all future Winter Classics to aspire to match.

Photographs by dizfunk used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.