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Ice men cometh

Collins, Miller get the big assists for delivering frozen goods

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / December 29, 2009

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Old Man Winter deserves some of the credit for the growing success of the NHL’s Winter Classic because it was his timely cajoling of the clouds just south of Buffalo on Jan. 1, 2008, that provided a steady snowfall and turned an outdoor hockey game into a made-to-meteorological-order Hallmark Moment.

“The snow certainly enhanced it, made it magical,’’ recalled NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, that snowy afternoon at Ralph Wilson Stadium providing his league a needed toehold on US television exposure with broadcast partner NBC. “I wouldn’t mind some snow for the game at Fenway. You never know, maybe a couple of snow guns from the New England ski areas, strategically placed on the roof . . . ’’

Presto, a midwinter afternoon’s dream. Long considered a league lacking in marketing imagination or big-league chutzpah, in part because of its Original Six monopolistic mentality, the NHL these days clearly has its thinking tuque on. Find an open field. Put up a rink. Pour in water. Chill to a freeze. And the people will come, both by foot and remote clicker. People will most definitely come.

The Winter Classic, now a New Year’s Day staple on NBC, slid quickly and cozily into a spot staked out for decades by a full day’s menu of college football bowl games. As the ever-expanding constellation of bowls moved their chains all over the calendar and up and down the TV dial, the NHL darted in to fill NBC’s programming void faster than Alexander Ovechkin to a loose chunk of vulcanized rubber.

With all due respect to O.M. Winter, the gestalt of the Jan. 1 game - this year featuring the Bruins and Flyers at Fenway Park - really rests with two men, each a nontraditional “hockey guy’’: John Collins, who today is the NHL’s chief operating officer, and Jon Miller, executive vice president of NBC Sports.

Business acquaintances for years, dating to Collins’s varied and protracted tour with the NFL and Miller’s ascension through NBC that began in 1978 when he was an account executive with a Washington, D.C., affiliate, they began formulating the X’s and O’s of the outdoor game soon after Collins joined the NHL in November 2006 as a senior executive VP.

“In fact, as I remember it, it was my first day on the job, maybe my first 15 minutes on the job,’’ recalled Collins, also credited with the strategy and design of the NHL Network and nhl.com. “I got a call from [Miller] and he said, ‘I think I have an idea for you.’ Now, at that point, I’d been in the industry for a long time and I knew what big events are supposed to feel like. I think I can smell a big event. So when NBC says to you, ‘Hey, we have a window available on Jan. 1 and we’d like to talk to you about it, specifically about an outdoor game’ . . . well, you know, I’m leaning forward when I hear that.’’

Miller watched with interest from afar when the Oilers played host to what eventually became the precursor to the Winter Classic. On Nov. 22, 2003, in a bone-chilling Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, Alberta, the Oilers and Canadiens faced off before a crowd of 57,167 for what was a celebration of the Oilers’ 25th NHL season.

The Habs left the Heritage Classic with a 4-3 victory, but the true triumph came in the stands, where fans, many wrapped in thick blankets and carrying silvery flasks, withstood temps that rested slightly below zero degrees Fahrenheit. The US viewing audience was fed the game via tape delay on ESPN, hardly making it a memorable moment, but the events of the day began to percolate with Miller.

“I was thinking of that game in Edmonton, as far back as 2004, thinking maybe we could do something like that at Yankee Stadium,’’ he recalled. “The Red Sox and Yankees had just had their great [American League Championship] series, and on the heels of that, I thought maybe we could try something on New Year’s Day at Yankee Stadium.’’

In 2004, however, the NHL was in the throes of a labor dispute with the Players’ Association. The league’s training camps didn’t open on time in September, Bettman declaring a lockout upon the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement, and ultimately Miller’s idea of an outdoor game went into hibernation when the entire season was declared lost to the labor impasse. Regular-season play resumed in October 2005, following the implementation of a salary cap-based CBA that summer, and it was only slightly more than a year later when Miller again broached his idea with Collins, freshly arrived in the NHL offices after his tour as president and CEO of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns.

“John got it right away,’’ said Miller, whose willingness to take a stab at somewhat unorthodox events has also turned the National Dog Show into a Thanksgiving Day staple on NBC.

“Gary [Bettman] got it right away, too. And my boss, Dick Ebersol, really got it and told us to run with it. Initially, within the league, there might have been some people slow to embrace it, thinking it was crazy to go with it on New Year’s Day. But in the middle of 2004-05, college football ceded the day - most of the big bowl games shifted to prime-time programming over a number of days. New Year’s Day was no longer the mecca of great football bowl games.’’

The key to making it happen within the league, said Miller, was Collins’s vision, energy, and passion. From the point of both sides agreeing in November 2006 that they had something worth exploring, with a target date (Jan. 1, 2008), it would be only another 13 months before the game day hardware would be rolled into Orchard Park, N.Y., home to the Buffalo Bills and site of the first Winter Classic between the Penguins and Sabres.

“John and I knew each other for 20 years, from his days with the NFL,’’ said Miller. “I was thrilled he was taking his new post with the NHL. And from that first day we talked about it, his approach was, ‘What can I do to make this happen?’ Really, it didn’t take him more than two minutes to sign on. He was the No. 1 champion of the idea within the league, no question. Then it quickly became, ‘Where do we find a place to play? How do we find two teams to play it?’ But the Buffalo people were great. It happened. And it’s been magical ever since.’’

That initial Winter Classic sold out in a matter of minutes, packing a crowd of 71,217 inside what became a football stadium turned snow globe. The network posted a 2.2 national rating with a 2.6 overnight, translating to 3.75 million viewers. Fans turned the parking lots around Ralph Wilson Stadium into a sprawling tailgate party, with regulation-size hockey nets plucked from the backs of SUVs and propped up for street games throughout the morning.

A year later, with the Winter Classic buzz established, NBC and the NHL staged the game at Wrigley Field (the Wrigley Wrink), the Cubs’ iconic baseball park on Chicago’s North Side. A smaller park led to a smaller gate (40,818), and again it sold out in minutes, with only a fraction of the 250,000 orders filled. TV ratings for the Red Wings-Blackhawks tilt increased to 2.5 and 2.9, and viewership increased by 17 percent to 4.4 million.

“It’s far from a cookie-cutter presentation,’’ said Collins, noting the litany of challenges inherent in constructing NHL-quality ice in the great outdoors, whether the rink is built within the expanse of a football field or the cozy confines of a historic ballyard. “Every venue is different, but we’ve proven that we can pull off the big event - not just pull it off, but make it a spectacle that really excites people, makes them want to watch, brings value to our sponsors, to NBC, and to the fans. Fenway, with the left-field wall and the ballpark’s history, it adds an aura to the event this year, just like the snow in Buffalo added a little fairy dust to the whole thing.’’

According to Bettman, although ticket pricing at Fenway is on a level that in some cases surpasses what the Red Sox would charge for a World Series game, the event is “not a financial windfall’’ for the league. The 35,000 or so fans who make it to Fenway Jan. 1, though, will be confronted with all manner of pricey Winter Classic merchandise, much of which is also peddled online at nhl.com.

According to the NHL, sales of consumer products related to the Winter Classic at Wrigley topped $5 million, an increase of more than 150 percent over the game at Orchard Park. TV ratings and dry-good sales are very much on the upswing.

“Yes, it drives a lot of revenue,’’ agreed Bettman. “But it is very, very, very, very expensive to put on. We don’t do it to make money. It makes some money, but not a lot. For us, the game is about exposure, building the brand, connecting to the fans, building on our partnership with NBC. And, hey, it’s not without peril. We’re outside, remember, and the day could come - the main threat being rain - that the game doesn’t happen. It costs more than $3 million to put the game on, so if there’s no game one day, we’re out a substantial investment.’’

It’s likely that the league next season will stage two outdoor games, though not necessarily both on Jan. 1. CBC carries the Winter Classic to Canada, where all six NHL teams have evinced an interest, along with most US-based franchises, to play host. It could be the Canadian-based game ends up occupying another day on the calendar. All details, said Bettman, will be worked out in the weeks and months to follow the Fenway game.

Meanwhile, Miller, encouraged by how both his network and the NHL have worked together thus far, hinted that he may have something else up the blousy sleeve of his hockey sweater.

“We’re brainstorming something else right now,’’ said the 53-year-old Miller. “It’s great fun to create something out of nothing and see where it goes, like the Winter Classic.

“It’s turned into such a happening, fun thing. And it grew from a lot of people thinking, ‘Boy, is this a knucklehead idea?’ to now where everyone wants to be a part of it.’’

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