For the past four seasons, the NHL has created an enormously successful event on New Year's Day with the advent of the Winter Classic, an outdoor game played usually in a football or baseball stadium.
The game has become a huge success, both ratings-wise and attendance-wise for the NHL and has quickly evolved into one of the most highly-anticipated events of the hockey season.
While it's unknown as to who will be hosting the Winter Classic in 2012, if you're looking for some hints as to what will happen, all you have to do is have a look at the NFL schedule, which was released tonight.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has said in the past that they prefer to play the game at a football stadium, because football stadiums bring better sight-lines for hockey and they only play it at baseball stadiums if it's a particularly historic venue (such as Wrigley Field in 2009 and Fenway Park in 2010).
So, if you have a look at the NFL's Week 17 schedule for this upcoming season, you can get a few hints as to some things that may happen or may be different with the NHL Winter Classic next season.
First, one thing that needs to be addressed is the fact that Week 17 of the NFL season will be taking place on New Year's Day, which is certainly not the type of competition that the NHL would want for its biggest showcase event.
The NHL won't even be able to have the game in prime time, where it's only competing against one NFL game because that one NFL game would be in the prime time slot on NBC, who just announced that it has rights to the NHL for the next 10 years.
Long story short, I think it's very possible that the NHL decides to have the Winter Classic on a day other than New Year's Day, possibly New Year's Eve so it's not competing with the NFL.
Next, if Bettman holds true on holding the game at a football stadium, where are some venues where the game can be held?
One stadium that was widely believed would host the Winter Classic in 2012 is the New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ., which would likely play host to a Devils-Rangers matchup.
If the game is on New Year's Day this year, you can pretty much count the Meadowlands out because the Giants will host the Cowboys on January 1 and the Jets and Giants will play each other on December 24, which leaves a very tight window to get a rink set up and taken down (if the game were to be held on say, the 31st.)
In other words, don't expect the Winter Classic in the New York area this year.
Another stadium that many had considered to be a front-runner, was Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, which could possibly host a Flyers-Rangers matchup. But like the Meadowlands, the Eagles will be home against the Redskins on January 1, so you can count the Linc out for the Winter Classic next season.
If it's going to be held at an NFL venue, one stadium that could potentially host the game would be FedEx Field in Landover, MD, which could potentially host a Winter Classic involving the Capitals.
Except for one thing: The Capitals were in the Winter Classic last year and it wouldn't look good on the NHL to have the same team in the classic two consecutive years.
After those three venues, there's really not too many NFL venues that could possibly host the game next year. Buffalo already hosted a classic in 2008, Boston hosted one in 2010, Chicago did one in 2009, so those are three places that are essentially out and Pittsburgh has already been in the game twice.
Basically, I'd say it's pretty reasonable to expect that the Winter Classic will be held at either a baseball venue or a college football venue next year, due to a simple lack of options for NFL venues.
One possible classic that jumps to mind is the Red Wings possibly hosting the classic at Michigan Stadium at the University of Michigan. Michigan hosted an outdoor college game last year, so it's a venue that is familiar with the concept of an outdoor hockey game.
All in all, it will be very interesting when the NHL makes its announcement on who gets to play in the Winter Classic next season and it will be interesting to see if the NHL continues to have the game on New Year's Day.