In some respects, the NHL was lucky it didn't lose Sidney Crosby until after last year's Winter Classic, when he took the hit that would eventually lead him to miss games for almost an entire calendar year.
Because in hockey, your best-laid plans don't often amount to much, and the unpredictable is the rule. Never more so has that been true than with this year's 2012 Winter Classic. Consider:
This year's Classic pits longtime big-market rivals New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers against one another, but few last summer would've predicted this January 2 meeting would be a battle for first place -- not only in the Atlantic Division, but also in the Eastern Conference, and in the NHL overall.
THE MISSING STARS
Fewer still (other than diehard fans who debate cheesesteaks or worship Derek Jeter) would've imagined such high stakes when each team has been without its best defenseman -- the Rangers missing Marc Staal all season long, while the Flyers have been without captain Chris Pronger for all but 13 games and don't expect to see him again in 2011-12.
(Note: In a late, well, too-good-to-script twist, Staal is indeed cleared to play.)
And of course, not even the time of the game is predictable when you move the event outdoors. Last year it was the rain that delayed things in Pittsburgh, and last week the same element threatened to again ruin what little sleep NHL ice guru Dan Craig gets this time of year. But it turns out now it's the unclouded Philadelphia sun that has the league pushing the start time back two hours, to 3 p.m.
THE TV STAR ... ON THE BENCH?
Surely you could count on the goalie with the 9-year, $51 million contract and the unending focus of HBO's 24/7 crews to get the starting nod for this made-for-TV event though ... right? Not a chance. Not with Sergei Bobrovsky being Peter Laviolette's hot hand.
So instead of Ilya Bryzgalov providing HBO with a dramatic climax to his weeks of musing on the universe, on dogs' similarities to hot blondes, and on the proper way to ring in the Russian New Year, you instead get Bryzgalov announcing before his own coach that no, he will not start the Winter Classic game.
And that's just as well. Between the dedicated service to league sponsors and the full access given to HBO to help hype the game, the Winter Classic comes off as nothing if not a scripted event for the cameras.
But a funny thing happens when a carefully planned made-for-TV hockey game is played for real stakes, out in the elements: The script really does go out the window. Stars don't play. The weather doesn't provide the picturesque snowflakes of the inaugural year. The coaches play who they damn well want based on who will help them win, not based on who pleases the viewers.
Why, as we discovered last year, even a league superstar (and hero of the first Winter Classic) gets hurt as a game becomes more about what David Steckel couldn't control than what Sidney Crosby could.
It's all for television, but thankfully it's still hockey. And who knows -- maybe Bryzgalov will end up seeing the ice after all.
Less scripted things have happened.
For more on this year's Winter Classic, head over to SB Nation's Rangers blog Blueshirt Banter and Flyers blog Broad Street Hockey. For everything Winter Classic in the build-up to the game, head over to our NHL Winter Classic StoryStream.