January 4, 2008 / 1:22 PM / 10 years ago

Outdoor roots helping NHL grow fans and attention

<p>Fans watch the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres play the first period of the NHL's Winter Classic outdoor hockey game in Orchard Park, New York January 1, 2008. Outdoor games could become a regular fixture on the NHL calendar following another stunning success at the Winter Classic on Tuesday despite freezing temperatures and blizzard conditions.Gary Wiepert</p>

ORCHARD PARK, New York (Reuters) - Outdoor games could become a regular fixture on the NHL calendar following another stunning success at the Winter Classic on Tuesday despite freezing temperatures and blizzard conditions.

The outdoor experiment, conducted in two of the NHL's smallest markets in Edmonton and Buffalo, have produced the league's two biggest crowds with 57,167 watching the game between the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers in 2003.

On Tuesday 71,217 fans, paying an average ticket price of $75, watched Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Buffalo Sabres 2-1 on a shootout.

Having struggled to build an audience in the United States the match also attracted unprecedented media coverage for a regular season NHL game despite going head-to-head against American football's college bowl games.

To maximize its exposure the NHL is now considering moving the outdoor concept into major markets, with several cities including Detroit, New York Boston and Montreal reportedly interested in hosting games.

"Based on the response and the inquiries we're getting from other clubs for similar activities, this obviously is something we're going to look at doing again," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

While hockey purists have viewed the outdoor games as a stunt the response from players and coaches has been enthusiastic.

"I'd love to do this again, I thought it was awesome," Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff told reporters. "On breaks I looked around and it was incredible. It was a great day that I think everybody enjoyed.

"I thought it was very good for the game. It really brings you back to the game's roots.

"With the TV and broadcasting now, it makes it a lot bigger spectacle. But for most players it's where it all started.

"I think it was good for the game. It may not be the best hockey game because of the weather but the atmosphere was incredible."

Editing by Greg Stutchbury

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