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Outdoor games such as the Winter Classic and Centennial Classic worthy of the buzz

The novelty has not worn off. The Winter Classic and other outdoor games still have buzz.
Ever since the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins played in the inaugural Winter Classic on Jan. 1, 2008, at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, the annual outdoor game has become the NHL's marquee regular-season event. It was such an early success that the league added more outdoor games.

This season, the NHL will celebrate its 100th anniversary, kicking it off with the Centennial Classic between the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs on Jan. 1 at BMO Field in Toronto. The 2017 Winter Classic between the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues will be played Jan. 2 at Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals. Then the Penguins will host the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2017 Stadium Series on Feb. 25 at Heinz Field, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The majority of the players love the idea of playing outside, and fans flock to the venues like it's the first hockey game they've ever watched.

"It's definitely fun," said Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask, who participated in the 2010 and 2016 Winter Classics.

Outdoor games have become so popular that the NHL alumni, AHL, colleges and high schools are taking it outside every winter. Even pond-hockey tournaments throughout North America are selling out because of the rebirth of playing outside. And who can blame them? Nothing is more invigorating than filling your lungs with a blast of cold-winter air after your first few strides on an outdoor rink or pond. It feels like you can skate outside forever.

Whenever players get an extended break during the grueling 82-game season, most like to relax in warm climates. During the 2012 NHL All-Star break, Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron decided instead to spend five off-days on the ponds of Lake Placid, New York. He brought his skates, gloves and stick with him to upstate New York and spent hours playing pond hockey with kids who didn't recognize him.

Playing hockey outside is a special feeling. For the NHL, it's a big stage. It's more than just two points and the NHL has taken full advantage of this opportunity.

"It's a great experience for the fans," said one Eastern Conference general manager. "It's a sort of celebration and exhibition of hockey. Hard on the players to play in challenging conditions, and the preparation/build-up is also hard on players."

Of course, there's always the challenge of the weather at the Winter Classic. At times, it can be picturesque, with a game being played in a snowstorm. Games have also been delayed because of sun glare. The forecast for Toronto for Sunday is mostly sunny and around freezing, but the forecast for St. Louis for Monday calls for rain and a high of 60.

"Everybody has to deal with it," said Bruins defenseman Torey Krug, who played in the 2016 Winter Classic against the Montreal Canadiens at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, home of the New England Patriots. "You just don't want to be the one that falls victim to it. It definitely plays a factor, for sure. I played at Michigan Stadium when I was back at Michigan State, and I thought the wind played a huge factor, more so than the sun."

There's always concern when it comes to the safety and quality of the ice in an outdoor game. After outdoor practices in the past, players expressed concerns with the ice, but once the puck dropped, few complained. Overall, NHL ice guru Dan Craig and his staff have done a terrific job preparing the ice. It's easier for teams that have played multiple outdoor games -- such as the Blackhawks (coming up on their fifth appearance) and Red Wings (fourth appearance) -- because it's easier to prepare for the elements.

Almost nine years since the first game, the Winter Classic is legendary. Iconic memories have been made. Ratings, revenues and sponsorships have carried the event. Some fans, and a handful of players, might believe there are too many outdoor games.

I'm here to say there should be more.

Related Video
NHL getting St. Louis ready for outdoor hockey
NHL getting St. Louis ready for outdoor hockey
The Blues will play the Blackhawks in the Winter Classic, check out a time lapse as Busch Stadium gets turned into a hockey rink.

Related Topics:
sportsespnchicago blackhawksst louis bluesnhlexhibition stadiumbusch stadiumoutdoor gamesheritage classiccentennial classicwinter classicbmo fielddetroit red wingstoronto maple leafs
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