Back when we were kids, there was always that day when the outdoor portion of the hockey season ended. You and your buddies showed up at the pond, but your sheet of dreams had been rained on lightly the night before, and it now was groaning and creaking. Its color wasn't what you remembered, and there was now a layer of slush on top.
You had no choice at that point but to send one of your buddy's kid brothers out on the ice to see if it held. More often than not the creaking and cracking increased markedly and he retreated to shore quickly (and with threats to tell Mom). Every once in a while, he fell through and you had to come up with a story right then and there.
Chances are that the NHL isn't going to send Sidney Crosby or Alex Overchkin onto the ice at Heinz Field to see if it will hold or not, but the chances that league's portion of the outdoor season, at least in the US, is done.
With each passing hour, forecasters are more sure that Saturday in Pittsburgh will see rain with temperatures in the 50s. Accuweather.com has gone so far as to say that there is a 20 percent chance that a thunderstorm might roll in.
Try as it might, the NHL can't defy the laws of physics and create ice (or even what passes for the skating surface at Madison Square Garden) in a warm, spring-like rain.
We knew this day would come. It was logical to assume that if the league invested in the future of the Winter Classic, it would quickly become a media event. However, if the NHL continued to play the outdoor games, one of them was going to be washed out. Every major outdoor sporting event save the Super Bowl (which isn't outdoors all the time any more) has been postponed, canceled or altered in format by Mother Nature.
The most likely scenario brewing at present is that the rain, which arrives in town Friday, forces the Old Timers game indoors and sticks around long enough to melt what is in place at Heinz Field. With only Sunday, January 2 to recover, the event would be canceled and the game moved to the Consol Energy Center on Saturday, January 29. Tickets would be refunded (unless you bought them through a ticket broker), and new tickets issued for what becomes just another regular season game.
The NHL has said that it will leave a large window open on the 1st in order to play the game. If weather conditions are more favorable and the ice can be salvaged, faceoff could occur as late as 8:00pm on New Year's night.
January 2 would hold a similar window, but the contract between the league and the Pittsburgh Steelers states that Heinz Field must be turned back to the football team on the 3rd so that the playing surface can be re-sodded in time for a possible NFL playoff game.
There appears to be something of a gentleman's agreement in place that under this scenario, the Winter Classic would be offered to the Penguins and the city of Pittsburgh again in 2012 with the Capitals remaining the opponent.
It says something about the league that an event which has quickly surpassed its All-Star game in popularity and has become a must-see for all sports fans can be ruined in such a manner without doing great marketing or financial harm to the league. It says something about the quality of the game today that people outside of rabid hockey fandom will miss not seeing the Winter Classic this year.