At The Winter Classic, A New Year Belongs To Gary Bettman

PHILADELPHIA—These are supposed to be the treasured memories of the NHL's Winter Classic: Star-crossed Brayden Schenn's first career goal. Mike Rupp's mocking Jagr salute after his first score. Henrik Lundqvist stoning a penalty shot for the game. But they're transient memories, already fading.

While the hockey game was a corker, the true lasting moments are more random and took place outside the confines of the game proper: Ilya Bryzgalov, discoursing on the universe and his "hot girl" dog. Mike Milbury, two weeks after this, playing hockey with some local kids in a game refereed by a man in a gecko costume. The back of commissioner Gary Bettman's head, nodding over and over again, in complete agreement with a virtual Bob Costas. Things like that.

Make no mistake, Philadelphia was ready for the Winter Classic. (Much of Philadelphia, anyway. On a subway platform, surrounded and bewildered by a lot of orange jerseys and open beers, one young woman yelled out "I don't care who the Flyers are playing. I'm just trying to get to work!") But there was a sense all day—independent of the home team's eventual loss—that the game itself was an afterthought. The dirty work had already been done, and now it was time for hockey to skate a victory lap. This was the day to celebrate HBO's 24/7 and the launch of NBC Sports Network, the two truly enduring legacies of the winter.

It's hard to grasp what a marketing coup the Winter Classic is. In slightly more than four years, the NHL has successfully claimed an entire holiday as its own: New Year's Day now belongs to hockey (as long as the NFL isn't using it.) Why not? MLB has the Fourth of July, the NFL has Thanksgiving, and the NBA has done a masterful job of owning Christmas. The fourth biggest American sports league finally has control of America's fourth biggest holiday.

At The Winter Classic, A New Year Belongs To Gary Bettman

"It started when college football ceded the day," NHL COO John Collins said. "They took the big bowls off New Year's Day, and it was open for us. We needed an event worthy of the day.

"And an opportunity to let hockey fans tailgate." (On my way to Citizens Bank Park, I spoke to a PPD officer doing crowd control. He told me one tailgater had passed out and been arrested for public intoxication around 11 a.m., four hours before the game.)

But why stop with just one day? In a way the All-Star Game has never been able to achieve, the Winter Classic has become a date circled far in advance on the NHL calendar, accompanied by a holiday season of anticipation. The Winter Classic is really about the road to the Winter Classic, and not for nothing is that the subtitle to the 24/7 series that has done so much to create buzz for a cold afternoon in a young year.

"The journey is the destination," said NBC sports marketing chief John Miller at a press conference last month. The conference was held in studio 8H in Rockefeller Center, the home of Saturday Night Live. On that historic floor, right next to the Grand Central set where the musical guest performs, a murderer's row of media heavyweights got together to pay tribute to Gary Bettman's product. And Bettman was there to soak it in.

Bettman wasn't scheduled to be there. The event was a panel featuring executives from NBC, Comcast, and the NHL, with Bob Costas beamed in via satellite. Softball questions gave the participants the chance to heap acclaim upon the upcoming Winter Classic, and in that setting, moderated by the dulcet tones of Liam McHugh, it was a cozy little Christmas card to the NHL. Bettman was sitting in the audience, looking for all the world as if he had come to hear what the speakers had to say. By pure chance, he had chosen a seat in front of me, a couple feet over.

Bettman nodded, that's what I remember. He nodded a lot, each time someone said something nice about the Winter Classic, about NBC Sports' participation, about 24/7. He nodded when they spoke of getting back to hockey's outdoor roots, and nodded when they spoke of the novelty drawing in casual fans. He nodded, and when it was over he shook hands with anybody important.

When Bettman was first named commissioner in 1993 (after spending years with the NBA, largely in marketing), his mandate was to sell the game in America. Commissioner is an odd title, existing only in the sports world. In any other field, Bettman would be a CEO. The job's the same: to build the brand and make money. So it's more instructive to think of him that way, as Gary Bettman the businessman. As he nodded and glad-handed at a self-congratulatory corporate event, it was easy to see how successful he's been in that role.

Absent from the press conference was Ross Greenburg, the longtime president of HBO Sports, who was forced out this summer and promptly signed up to work for NBC alongside his best friends in the business: the NHL. The story goes that Greenburg had lost the ears of the elite boxing promoters, and HBO's fight cards were no longer the industry's unquestioned best. Since HBO Sports is largely funded by pay-per-view buys, that was enough for a change, and Greenburg was replaced with Ken Hershman, the head of Showtime's boxing division. But as boxing declines everywhere, hockey once again makes its bid to join the mainstream. That's where Greenburg shone.

24/7 already existed as a catch-all for HBO's all-access miniseries. It was usually hauled out to hype big fights, but the brand was even tapped to follow around NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson. It was Greenburg who went to the NHL, and Greenburg who convinced the league that HBO could have its critical darling, and in return, Bettman's league would look good. HBO's access would be comprehensive, but not total; in a move that rubbed some media folks the wrong way, the league was allowed to view 24/7 episodes before they aired. Producer Dave Harmon might write it off as the league wanting to avoid exposing any "competitive secrets," but there's was something Orwellian about his reference to the NHL's "second set of eyes" over his shoulder.

Still, the result should please the league, the filmmakers, and the viewers. 24/7's formula is simple. It's the kind of televised mythologizing regularly afforded football and baseball: slow-motion shots set to sweeping brass and Liev Schreiber's best John Facenda, and instantly the mundane becomes majestic, the frenzied sublime. What sets 24/7 apart is that it's not a reality show, but a full-on documentary of the kind HBO does so well. The pay cable station, not beholden to 30-second ad sales, finally crafted for the NHL the artistically significant mash note the league had never been able to create for itself.

The league's relationship with NBC is older and loaded with more baggage. The Peacock was the first American network to broadcast the playoffs, and the first to show the finals in color. In the early '70s, when expansion was rampant and there was a pipe dream that hockey could join the American sport pantheon (prefiguring soccer's pipe dream half a decade later), NBC went all in. That meant not only the playoffs in prime time, but a weekly Sunday matinee, which predictably got crushed by the NFL. But NBC wasn't willing to wait for the sport to break through. After three seasons, the network gave the league an ultimatum: ratings for the 1975 finals needed to blow it away, or the contract would not be renewed. Not only did ratings not spike; NBC didn't even show the deciding sixth game of the series.

When hockey returned to NBC in the 1990s, it was more of a curio than a commitment. The network showed only All-Star Games, because some of the largest TV markets refused to air regular-season games. And then, a decade later, the renewed contract was almost insulting: NBC didn't have to pay the NHL any rights fees to air the games, a smack in the face for Bettman the businessman. You know what sort of operations don't have the leverage to charge rights fees? Fringe sports like Arena Football. To top it off, NBC's big new national deal with the NHL went into effect for the 2004-2005 season, the season that never happened.

Yet as 2012 rolls around, NBC finds it needs hockey. The NBC Sports Network is the first attempt at launching a full-time national rival for ESPN since FOX Sports Net, way back in 1996, when Versus (né OLN) was still the little hunting-and-fishing network that could. FSN devolved into a confederation of regional sports networks because it didn't have a single national TV contract to give it an identity.

When Comcast subsumed NBC earlier this year, the new entity found it had most of the portfolio and the resources to challenge the Worldwide Leader. Versus brings golf for the weekends, and NBC brings Sunday Night Football and the next four Olympic games for the prestige. But without a linchpin to air every night in prime time, a new network would lack relevance.

Hence the $2 billion deal that will put up to 90 regular season games on the NBC Sports Network every year for the next ten years. Forty years ago, NBC gave hockey just three piecemeal seasons to make it big; now it has promised an entire decade of committed national exposure.

Gary Bettman's overseen some dark times, but he's now heading up a legitimately national sports league. The Board of Governors that kept re-electing a businessman as commissioner has gotten what it hoped for.

At The Winter Classic, A New Year Belongs To Gary Bettman

Now part of the Winter Classic's business agenda is to court the media. The NHL has been willing to go after nontraditional outlets, probably because it's rarely had friends in the high places. Bloggers are welcomed in a way they're not by other leagues. A PR person walked me through the lengthy credentialing process, a process that required taking a self-shot ID photo in the Gawker bathroom. I was offered a free subscription to the league's online league pass, GameCenter Live. I was invited to Studio 8H. Proof that the NHL's casting a wide net could be seen in the literally overflowing press box, where I was assigned a spot between Puck Daddy and Kukla's Korner, even if it was a row back of the ESPN phalanx. (Pictured: Grantland's Katie Baker, given the "obstructed view" seat.)

It feels nice to be welcome. It makes you want to give good press. I had an old-school journalism teacher who told students never to accept gifts or even eat the food provided, because you won't be able to stay objective. I did not take the proffered NHL tuque, but I did enjoy the hell out of my press box chili dog. So have I drunk the league's Kool-Aid? Considering the Winter Classic outreach has been going on since August, the more apt metaphor might be Stockholm Syndrome. After five months, I was just ready for the damn game to begin.

Except it wouldn't begin for another two hours. The game was pushed back from its original start time because of an iffy weather forecast. (When the postponement was announced, Accuweather was predicting a 10 percent chance of rain at 1 p.m. At 3 p.m., that chance rose to 20 percent.) Rain can be crippling for an outdoor rink, but a rainy forecast is death on scheduling. Last year, Pittsburgh was supposed to be warm and rainy, and a seven-hour postponement was announced. The Heinz Field rink sat eager and unused for seven hours of mostly perfect playing conditions.

At The Winter Classic, A New Year Belongs To Gary Bettman

This year, the sky was dry if an ominous steely gray, and the only precipitation was the picturesque flurries to come later. I spent the extra two hours doing a quick survey of the land. In the parking lots, fans were tapping pony kegs and playing pickup games of street hockey. On Pattison Avenue, scalpers were looking in vain for anyone with extra tickets to sell. On 11th Street, a generic rock band played for crowd that listened stoically, save three young men in Flyers sweaters hardcore-dancing in front of the stage. On the concourse, hot chocolate was selling well, but the water fountains were covered because they'd been turned off for the winter. In the interview room, Rangers coach John Tortorella was telling the world that Marc Staal would return for the first time since April, and could keep a better personnel secret than Ilya Bryzgalov. On the field, a pair of youth hockey teams faced off on a miniature rink surrounded by burning trash cans, overseen by a man in a gecko costume as referee. Later, Mike Milbury would join them on the ice, unafraid to be associated with youth hockey. Later on, he would swear on live TV. The day was getting late and growing cold.

When last year's Classic finally began, at 8 p.m., the NHL spun it as another novelty—"Hockey Under The Lights!"—but this time it wouldn't fly. Not with the quickening dusk obscuring the distant skyline behind the benches, taking away the cameras' money shot. Not with a crowd sounding subdued, because their applause and cheers were literally muffled. It was 41 degrees at puck drop and gradually got colder. That's not an unbearably low temperature, but it brings creeping numbness. The sort of numbness that you might expect from sitting outside for hours as the sun sets over the Northeast in January.

At The Winter Classic, A New Year Belongs To Gary Bettman

This is part and parcel of Winter Classic history and future: It is often supremely unpleasant to attend. Just before game time, the retractable windows covering the press box slid open, sending everyone scrambling for their coats. Though still surrounded on nearly all sides by shelter, and warmed by powerful heaters, now we too could pretend to be among the suffering thousands.

The delay had another unintended consequence for the most powerful people in the room. The NBC Sports Network was supposed to go on air at 4 p.m., with the Winter Classic postgame show as its premiere. But since the Ts were crossed and the commercial time sold, the network had to start broadcasting as scheduled, in direct competition with the Winter Classic itself. When the game did end, at 6, NBC Sports Network cut in with the postgame show—preempting the airing of Ross Greenburg's first project for NBC, a documentary on the Soviet-Canadian 1972 Summit Series.

The entire event was so inextricably tied to television, it was not hard to imagine a grain of truth in John Tortorella's conspiracy theories:

"I'm not sure if NBC got together with the refs to turn this into an overtime game," Tortorella said. "So for two good refs, I thought the game was reffed horribly...in that third period, it was disgusting."

Bad refereeing is more plausible than shadowy plotting, even if one of the referees hailed from Philadelphia, and even if a made-for-TV event would have benefited from a late tie. So while I don't believe the refs wanted overtime, I wouldn't totally blame the league if they were to give it a try.

So here's the postmortem for the 3-2 Classic, to the average fan watching at home without a horse in the race: It was a solid hockey game marked by frequent stoppages in play and a below-average ice surface that required constant patching. "It was shitty," said a Rangers defenseman who immediately asked me not to quote him. "Puck wouldn't stay flat."

At The Winter Classic, A New Year Belongs To Gary Bettman

It's not fair to say it disappointed. There's no shame in living up to the unliveuptoable expectations created by 24/7 and the launch of NBC Sports. Nothing short of Eric Lindros parachuting from the pregame jet flyover to suit up for the Flyers' first line could have exceeded the pregame hype, but sometimes the hype is the event.

So while Danny Briere's penalty shot will look gangbusters on HBO, and John Tortorella chatting happily in the locker room with 10-year-old cerebral palsy sufferer Liam Traynor was duly heartwarming, there were no new entrants to the choosy annals of eternity. I'd argue that five years of the Winter Classic have produced just two important moments—both involving Sidney Crosby.

One came in the first iteration of the Classic, with Crosby scoring the winning goal in a shootout. The other came last year, with Crosby suffering a concussion. (No matter how much the league wants to pretend it never happened, Crosby's first of two concussions in a week came at the hands of Dave Steckel.)

The diehards resent that Crosby is the poster boy for the league, the one star marketed to the casuals, making them want to scream that the NHL has so much more to offer. It's poetic, then, that the most mainstream hockey player in the most mainstream hockey game has revealed two truths the initiated would rather shield from the world. First, that yes, it really does use a gimmicky shootout to decide games. Second, yes, it really does have a major concussion problem, and it can't even save its biggest superstar from it.

But even if Sidney Crosby is ruined, and even if the actual Winter Classic game was anticlimactic, hockey's fanbase is as healthy as it's ever been. There's always been an uneasy coexistence between the casuals and diehards, and catering to one may alienate the other. But the NHL has finally accepted that this balance isn't a transitional period but a viable strategy: It takes all kinds of fans to make a successful pro sports league. So there's something for everyone, from the middlebrow documentary offerings to the lowbrow "Lookit, they're playing outside!"

The "deluxe Winter Classic experience," is one way to put it. Another was how an ebullient Gary Bettman did after the game, grinning and nodding: "We had a terrific day."

I go back to Bettman at Rockefeller Center, nodding along as TV executives and reporters take their turns praising HBO's 24/7 and NBC Sports' coverage and above all the Winter Classic "event." Comcast and Time Warner, two undisputed titans of American industry, sending the unmistakable message that they believe in the NHL's profitability. For Gary Bettman the businessman, that's the top of the mountain.