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Top Shelf: Leafs, Wings begin NHL's year of outdoor overkill

By Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - This year's Winter Classic is certain to be an amazing spectacle for those lucky enough to be counted among the 100,000-plus in Ann Arbor.

The game between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs also represents a high-water mark for the NHL and its love of the outdoor game. After staging an event like the one that is about to go down at Michigan Stadium, it's difficult to believe the Winter Classic will ever again carry the same weight that it once did.

When the Winter Classic began at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium on Jan. 1, 2008, the beauty and simplicity struck a chord with hockey die-hards and casual fans alike. Playing outdoors on New Year's Day became an instant NHL tradition, but soon the gimmick became bigger than the event and now the concept is a victim of its own success.

This edition of the Winter Classic should be special, and staging it at an iconic stadium ensures that it will be. Then again, thanks to the NHL's desire to run a great idea into the ground, the New Year's Day clash between the Red Wings and Maple Leafs is just one of six outdoor games scheduled this season. By overcrowding the field, the league is forcing the Winter Classic to fight for relevancy when it should've been focusing on ways to make this singular event better.

It's easy to understand why the NHL is not satisfied with just holding the Winter Classic anymore. The writing was on the wall back in 2011 when the Heritage Classic -- the precursor to the Winter Classic -- made a return to the NHL landscape, giving the league two outdoor games to play with. That year, the Pittsburgh Penguins hosted the Winter Classic at Heinz Field, while the Heritage Classic, an event that first debuted during the 2003-04 season, was staged in late-February at McMahon Stadium in Calgary.

Of course, it has everything to do with money. The revenue brought in by outdoor games is simply too much of a temptation to ignore.

Yes, the proliferation of outdoor games is going to lessen the impact the Winter Classic once had on television ratings in the United States, but that doesn't mean there isn't loads of cash to be raked in by both the NHL and the cities in which it stages these contests. Sooner or later, the league was bound to spread the wealth around and that is what is happening in 2014, when Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, and Vancouver join Detroit/Ann Arbor in cashing on what amounts to a windfall for those cities.

While the outdoor events can give a quick injection of cash to local economies, they also fill the league's coffers with precious revenue to be divided according to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. In fact, the current CBA and the war over what it would include (also known as the lockout of 2012-13) has a whole lot to do with this season's increase in outdoor games. After all, rumors that there would be more and more games like the Winter Classic peppered throughout the regular season were initially leaked while the lockout was still going on.

It stands to reason that while the owners and players were battling over the future economics of the league, they came up with a way to generate even more revenue from the Winter/Heritage Classic models. Combined with technical advances that make it possible to play on ice among the elements in places like L.A., it was only a matter of time before outdoor games and the money they generate made their way to the far reaches of the NHL empire.

Fair-weather climates or not, if the NHL can feasibly stage a game in your city it will think about doing it. Maybe someday we'll see an outdoor/All-Star Game hybrid in Las Vegas, or perhaps an NHL battle played in the desert surrounding Phoenix. If it's possible to keep the ice cold enough to play on, then it has a chance of actually happening.

Don't get me wrong, these events are all special in their own way because they are tied to local communities. It's cool to see the spectacle of an NHL outdoor game come to your town and watch as people -- locals and tourists alike -- flock to take part in a memorable event.

The NHL also can count on the cities holding the outdoor games to sell their product fervently. After all, when promoting a Winter Classic or games of its ilk, a city is also selling itself to the hockey world at large. It's a classic (pardon the pun) win-win situation.

There is little doubt the folks who will stand among the tens of thousands in Ann Arbor on Wednesday will be making memories that will last them a life time.

To the people watching at home on New Year's Day, however, knowing there are five more of these to come in 2014, it'll be just a little easier to flip the channel to something else and remember when the Winter Classic really meant something.

12/31 13:19:16 ET

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