NHL Winter Classic History: In A Sense, It Began In The Las Vegas Desert

The NHL's modern tradition of outdoor games began 20 years ago with Wayne Gretzky and Kings vs. the pre-Mark Messier New York Rangers. In the desert of Las Vegas. Now, it's an annual made-for-television event.

In a way, it began in the desert, in 1991, in the era of flowing blond Wayne Gretzky mullets, brash silver-and-black Los Angeles Kings uniforms (the first generation), when pastels dominated the pallet the way The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air dominated network television.

This NHL's tradition of outdoor games -- and the companion grab for attention from beyond the die-hard fans -- is now called the Winter Classic, but in a way it began in Sin City, in a hot environment before there was much hockey in hot environments, in a foray into "Sunbelt hockey" before there was much Sunbelt hockey.

Back in 1991 when the Kings faced the pre-Mark Messier New York Rangers at Caesar's Palace, the Kings had been around for nearly 25 years (in an NHL partnership with Jack Kent Cooke to block possible WHL growth), and the San Jose Sharks were about to begin life (in a bizarre attempt to save the Minnesota North Stars while appeasing former North Stars owners the Gunds), but otherwise, the Southern expansion that is the bane of reactionary Northern hockey fans was yet to begin.

But make no mistake: The NHL already had its eye on Vegas, on Texas, on Florida, just as it had its wandering eyes on a national footprint for 20 years before any hockey fan knew Gary Bettman's name. So on that night, while the Kings vs. Rangers preseason game showed Gretzky to the Vegas gamblers and came off without a hitch, a similar exhibition game between the New York Islanders and Boston Bruins in what was then called the Florida Suncoast Dome in St. Petersburg was called off. The ice survived grasshoppers -- yes, grasshoppers -- in the desert, but in Florida the ice was just too soft.

In Vegas, the NHL even showed off its dirty but marketable secret of fighting -- Kris King and Rod Buskas went at it -- in its continuing search to expand the game's appeal. But while they sought to sell the game to gamblers and Westerners and Southerners and vacationers, they likely didn't realize they were sitting on a gold mine with traditionalists: Just take the game outdoors in winter, and they will come.

It took more than 10 years for the NHL to stumble upon that gold mine, and of course it was at the suggestion of TV executives. Things resumed carefully with the Heritage Classic of 2003 in Edmonton between the Oilers and Montreal Canadiens. Of course Canadians would embrace hockey outside in the cold, but those images of Jose Theodore's breath steaming through his tuque-covered goalie mask must have lit a spark.

NBC proposed a U.S. version of what we now know as the Winter Classic as far back as 2004, but the league -- or rather, get this, league executives minus early supporter Gary Bettman -- resisted the idea.

But a lockout -- two lockouts since the desert game in 1991 -- has a way of making a league reconsider what's important. The NHL not only hired away John Collins from the NFL to revamp its marketing, it also followed Collins' lead when he became another advocate of the outdoor hockey event concept.

The first year with league poster boy Sidney Crosby scoring in the snow no doubt got things off on the right foot. The following years have had their mix of weather issues and sight line challenges, and the teams are starting to look a tad familiar as the NHL and NBC sticks to its Northeastern reliable ratings generators.

But the league and its network partner for the next decade want it to be all about good storytelling (and lucrative money grabs; never forget the money grab). From Crosby and Ovechkin, to games at Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, to this year's game between historic rivals the Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers, these corporate buddies certainly have that: Storytelling.

Because the Rangers and Flyers head into the January 2 event not just as characters in a made-for-TV drama, but also as division rivals fighting for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, this game has real meaning.

There's always a cynical side to this network event tailor-made for corporate sponsors, but for the league it's come a long way. Twenty years ago, 13,000 showed up for a curiosity exhibition game in the desert. On January 2, 2012, somewhere near 47,000 will show up rain or shine for an NHL game that truly matters.

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