New Year's Day used to belong to college football.
That was THE day of the college football season. Events like the Cotton Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl were the stories of the day. As the years went by, it became even bigger as the Fiesta Bowl and others were also played.
College football may not have had a national championship game, but they knew how to ring in the new year.
That changed with the creation of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). Instead of playing their main postseason games on New Year's Day, the sport spread them out over the holiday season and beyond (source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).
Hence, New Year's Day was there for the taking and the NHL jumped in.
At first, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had to be convinced that the league could put on a credible game that deserved to count in the regular-season standings. Once he gave the go-ahead, it was up to the game to live up to the opportunity and become a major event.
The first winter classic was played in Ralph Wilson Stadium and the home of the Buffalo Bills served as an ideal location for a meeting between the hometown Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The NHL's television partners at NBC hoped the unique location of the game and the presence of Sidney Crosby would help the game draw a big audience.
As snow started falling in Orchard Park, New York, the NHL had the moment it wanted. While the skating was on the slow side, each pass, movement and shot had an almost magical quality and word of mouth got the NHL a huge audience.
When the Penguins won the 2008 game in a shootout, the NHL had something it could build on. The game was named as the event of the year by the Sports Business Journal. The game got a TV rating of 2.6 and a share of 5.0—approximately 2.6 million viewers watched the game on television.
The next two years saw the game played at two classic Major League Baseball stadiums in Wrigley Field and Fenway Park (source: SI.com). The Chicago Blackhawks hosted the Detroit Red Wings in 2009 while the Boston Bruins faced the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010. The Red Wings rolled over the Hawks in Chicago, while the Bruins won an overtime thriller that left the Fenway fans roaring.
The Flyers would get their revenge later that spring when they would overcome a 3-0 deficit to roar back and win four straight to eliminate the Bruins in the second round of the playoffs.
Since then, the Winter Classic has become part of the NHL's landscape. It gives the league a moment in the regular season to call its own.
While it is a regular-season game, it has the feeling of a showcase event. The teams involved are honored by their selection and they bring back many of their former players to participate in alumni games and other celebratory events.
Without the Winter Classic, many casual fans wouldn't watch hockey until the playoffs or might not tune in at all.
With the Winter Classic, hockey has its own day to celebrate the majesty of the sport.