Winter Classic turns out to be NHL's gem

The NHL’s Winter Classic is solidifying itself as the league’s signature event, eclipsing the NHL All-Star Game and even some playoff matchups. Ticket sales and ratings have soared in the five years the Classic has been played.

Ticket re-seller StubHub has seen overall ticket sales for the Winter Classic trump not only the all-star game but also quite a few Stanley Cup games. Last year’s Classic in Pittsburgh out-sold Games 2, 3, 5 and 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. StubHub spokeswoman Joellen Ferrer notes that not as many tickets were available for the Stanley Cup games, but the trend wasn’t unique to last year.

The Winter Classic also out-sold Game 1 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals, and the 2008 Winter Classic was the second-best selling game of the regular season.

Ferrer said several hundred tickets have been purchased on StubHub for the upcoming All-Star Game in Ottawa, but prices are about 50 percent lower than they were for Monday’s 2012 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic.

On TV, the Winter Classic also has dominated the all-star game. Last year’s game was moved from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. because of weather, which put it up against the Fiesta Bowl and Rose Bowl. Even so, the game drew a 2.9 national rating, up 8 percent from the previous year. By comparison, last year’s all-star game drew just a 1.2, up from a 0.8 in 2009 (there was no 2010 game because of the Olympics). Last year’s Winter Classic rating also topped Games 1 and 3 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals.

With such success, it might be tempting for the NHL to hold more than one outdoor game a year, but the league is being cautious. Sam Kennedy, chief operating officer of the Boston Red Sox, which held the 2010 Winter Classic at Fenway Park, said the game was such a success the Red Sox approached the Bruins and the NHL about holding another Fenway matchup this year. Although the NHL allowed two outdoor games for the first time in 2011 -- the Winter Classic and the Heritage Classic (played between two Canadian teams) -- Kennedy said the league declined the second Fenway proposal.

But the Red Sox brought outdoor hockey back to Fenway this year on their own in an event called “Frozen Fenway.” Sunday marked the first of 16 of days of activities at the ice rink inside Fenway Park. A high school triple-header was played Monday, and on Saturday, teams from college’s Hockey East will take the ice in a doubleheader that sold out in less than a week.

In all, Fenway will host eight high school hockey games and six college games, including girls and women’s hockey. About 25 percent of the ice time will be used for children and families through public ice skating, high school games and USA Hockey youth clinics.

Kennedy said the cost of building the ice rink is a seven-figure number, with operating costs on top of it that can skyrocket if there’s snow that has to be cleared. Title sponsor Sun Life helps make it possible, and with the first college doubleheader sold out and the second with more than 25,000 tickets sold thus far, Kennedy is optimistic about the event’s success.

Even with such success, Kennedy said it’s unlikely such an event would be held annually. It’s expensive and strains the Red Sox staff, which runs the event. Like the NHL, the Red Sox also acknowledge novelty as a key factor in success: “I could see a scenario where we do it every two or three years, because it’s such a special event,” Kennedy said.