Winter Classic is about the show first, the hockey second
Max Talbot tried very hard to get himself ready. But for a hockey player, a sprained ankle is not something to push.
So on Jan. 1, 2008, Talbot and Pittsburgh teammate Marc-Andre Fleury, also hobbled by a bum ankle, found themselves rinkside at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium as observers, not participants, at the inaugural Winter Classic. As they lobbed snowballs at the Buffalo and Pittsburgh mascots, Talbot and Fleury watched all the elements come together.
The hockey gods delivered snowflakes, a competitive game between the Sabres and Penguins, Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller stopping pucks with a toque atop his mask, and Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby scoring the winning goal in a shootout.
"Perfect scene," Talbot recalled. "Shootout, a little snow coming down, cold enough. It was beautiful. A great event."
Eight years later, Buffalo's snow-globe scene will continue to pay dividends for the NHL at Gillette Stadium. The original game has sprouted from a singular event into a layered property that will feature similar outdoor showcases later this season in Minneapolis and Denver.
On Friday in Foxborough, all the elements of an interesting game will be in place: Bruins vs. Canadiens, Brad Marchand vs. P.K. Subban, and Claude Julien vs. Michel Therrien. The game, however, will be secondary, as it always has been whenever NHL teams have gone outdoors.
Above all else, the Winter Classic has been and will be about television programming.
"It's become a tentpole event and a New Year's tradition," said Sam Flood, executive producer of NBC Sports. "People now expect on New Year's Day to sit and watch what is a true spectacle in hockey.
"It caught on so quickly because of what Buffalo was — a perfect storm. The storm came in and made a snow-globe effect with the guys skating around on the ice. The game was won at the time by the rising star in the game in Sidney Crosby. It all created the perfect backdrop to make people fall in love with it."
Neither NBC nor the NHL knew how to package the inaugural game. They had never done anything like it. Flood recalled that the mandate in Buffalo was to present an event, not a hockey game.
So NBC kept its cameras on players' faces longer to capture their curiosity of playing outside. Even though the weather prevented blimps or helicopters from taking flight, NBC hired an airplane to fly over the stadium. When a goal went to replay, the producers went to a shot from the plane instead of on the ice. Everything about the Winter Classic had to be different.
"I have the feeling this guy was bordering on every FAA regulation with the wind and all that was going on," Flood said. "But he was able to stay up there, and for the first goal scored, everybody was talking about normal replays. No, we were going to the airplane.
"Even though there was a cloud in the middle of it and you didn't see the puck going in the net, we didn't care. You'd never seen a replay from an airplane in hockey. It was a bizarre moment. You're seeing hockey from an airplane way above the stadium through the clouds and snow. It was from a cool and crazy standpoint."
The NHL liked the way 71,217 Buffalo and Pittsburgh fans filled Ralph Wilson Stadium. NBC liked the 2.6 rating the game drew. That dictated that additional iterations would follow. Six more Winter Classics have taken place: at Wrigley Field (2009), Fenway Park (2010), Heinz Field (2011), Citizens Bank Park (2012), Michigan Stadium (2014), and Nationals Park (2015).
Friday's event will be the third that takes place at a football stadium. As quirky as hockey inside a baseball stadium may seem on TV, a football venue has its advantages. Gillette, in comparison to its baseball counterpart in the Back Bay, holds approximately twice as many fans. Seats are raked at steeper inclines. Sightlines are better. It is friendlier to TV's needs.
"You're in better shape sun-wise at a football stadium," said Flood, noting how glare at baseball parks has presented challenges, for both players and television. "The infrastructure is a lot easier for the cable cam. Every football game in this day and age uses the cable cam. It's a lot easier to implement to cover the game. Gillette is a really well-constructed, well-designed stadium."
The NHL and NBC will need every advantage they can get. The Winter Classic will be facing off against three of college football's behemoths: the Outback Bowl (Northwestern vs. Tennessee, noon), Citrus Bowl (Michigan vs. Florida, 1 p.m.), and Fiesta Bowl (Notre Dame vs. Ohio State, 1 p.m.). These are big-time events.
NBC is also losing the double-fisted American market combination that delivered a 2.9 rating for Chicago-Detroit at Wrigley Field. The network is counting on the New England market to tune into the Winter Classic in a big way to help offset Montreal's inclusion.
"It does take away the US market, which can impact the rating," Flood acknowledged. "But I call the Canadiens the Green Bay Packers. Green Bay is a national team with great ratings, even though their market is tiny. Green Bay, nationally, carries incredible levels. We think the Montreal Canadiens and that jersey have the same kind of power in the sport of hockey."
NBC will be counting on Rose Parade viewers to keep their fingers off the remotes. There will be a pregame show. Jordan Smith, winner of Season 9 of "The Voice," an NBC program, will sing "The Star-Spangled Banner." Cameras will capture the C-130J plane that will fly overhead. Wide shots will show the stadium's backdrop.
"When the puck comes out of the corner, we'll stay on the handheld camera," Flood said. "When the puck's leaving the zone and you're behind the play, then you see the mass of fans behind in the seats. It looks so much bigger. You see the empty sky. You see the bigness of it."
The Winter Classic is no longer a novelty. Its principals continue to chase the magic and uniqueness of the 2008 game. But even to an old-timer such as Talbot, Friday's game will be different.
"It would be the fourth one I've taken part of," Talbot said. "Every one of them is as exciting. It could be your first one or your 10th one, I don't care. It's an event that you're privileged to be a part of. All the buildup around it is super cool. It's great all around."