NHL sets higher bar with latest Classic

BOSTON -- For Mark Recchi, it was the stealth bomber swooping in over the Fenway Park crowd.

For Marco Sturm, it was his son wanting to stay on the ice at the family skate the day before the Winter Classic.

For Tim Thomas, a kid who grew up playing baseball, it was stepping out of the Boston Red Sox dugout and seeing the seats in which he often sits himself filled to watch a hockey game.

And on it goes.

Maybe it was James Taylor's lyrical version of the national anthem. Or the Dropkick Murphys rocking the crowd before the opening faceoff. Or the first Winter Classic scrap between Daniel Carcillo and Shawn Thornton.

It is not a stretch to suggest that for every Boston Bruins player, every Philadelphia Flyers player, every coach and manager, and the 38,112 who jammed into the Fenway Park stands, there will be a separate memory of the Winter Classic that they will tuck away forever.

For the third straight year, the NHL hit all the right notes on its annual outdoor adventure. The Bruins stormed back to beat Philadelphia 2-1 on an overtime goal by Sturm and heroics by Thomas, who was also named to the 2010 U.S. Olympic team minutes after the conclusion of the game.

"It was neat," Boston defenseman Derek Morris said. "We were trying to yell and scream to each other, but you couldn't hear yourself it was so loud. It was amazing. We wanted to win that game for the fans. It's a fairy-tale ending. It was pretty special."

But now what?

In some ways, the first three Winter Classics have been all about testing the waters, or frozen waters, as it were.

First, would this audacious plan work? The Buffalo experience on Jan. 1 2008, answered in the affirmative.

Then, could the plan be refined? Yes. The past two years, the NHL has taken the novelty of the event and made it a signature affair that draws fans in record numbers to the game itself and to television to watch the contest. Corporate sponsors are clamoring to get on board and NHL teams are now bidding to host the event. The integrity of the game itself has been fortified with the purchase of a portable ice-making unit which has produced two terrific games.

"It is a cornerstone of the strategy we began over three years ago to build scale and connect with our fans in ways we haven't done before, using all of the platforms available to us," commissioner Gary Bettman said Friday.

Each of the three Winter Classic events has managed the impressive feat of being better than the previous one, and the Fenway event raised the bar over last year's stellar event at Wrigley Field in Chicago.

Now, the NHL's challenge is in making sure future events follow this pattern.

It won't be easy. Success is said to breed success, but at the same time, the bar has been set extremely high and the risk of backsliding, of having an event that doesn't measure up and therefore becomes subject to criticism or disappointment, goes up.

The NHL has for the first time opened up a bid process to come up with a host for the 2011 game. The process will force teams to think outside the box in suggesting venues and activities that will "wow" the league.

The bid process will close around the end of the Olympic break in February, but league COO John Collins said the league will be very cautious about deciding where the game will be next year. He is right to show such caution because there are so many variables that go into making the decision, and, quite frankly, the stakes are high.

The New York Rangers, for instance, are the only U.S.-based Original Six team that has yet to play in a Winter Classic, and it is important they are involved given their heritage and importance to the league. Yankee Stadium may not be a possibility, though, with word college football will be using the facility over the holidays; so, the league must consider ways for the Rangers to host a game somewhere else or invite them to play in the contest as a visiting team.

One memory many fans will cherish from Friday's Winter Classic was watching former Bruins great Bobby Orr skate onto the ice as the team's honorary captain. Former Philadelphia captain and GM Bob Clarke was the Flyers' honorary captain, and to see the two Hall of Famers skate to center ice together for the ceremonial puck drop was a nice moment. Using the Winter Classic to pay homage to the game's heritage is an important element in deciding where to take the game next.

So, where should the NHL go?

One thing that has made the past two years so impressive was how the cities of Chicago and Boston responded to the event. The area around Fenway was abuzz for most of the week and Wrigleyville was in full party mode a year ago. In Buffalo, the buzz was more muted in part because the game was held outside the city at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y. So, it seems logical that future games be in central locations as opposed to venues that are more remote.

Denver should be considered if the NHL is looking to keep some sort of balance between the two conferences, and a clash with longtime rival Detroit has merit. Minnesota is a natural given the state's long love affair with the game.

Are we saying that places like Tampa, Atlanta, Carolina or Phoenix should never have an Outdoor Classic? In short, yes -- even if Carolina has shown itself to be a good hockey town and the Lightning demonstrated teams can not just survive but thrive in nontraditional markets with their run to the Stanley Cup in 2004. The Winter Classic has to be about more than just having good fans. There are lots of good fans in Nashville, but it's a safe bet the Preds won't be hosting a Winter Classic any time soon. And they shouldn't.

The Winter Classic by its very nature has to have classic elements. Wrigley and Fenway were no-brainers, but now it becomes more difficult to find those iconic venues. The game also has to celebrate its biggest stars, and that's why we don't have any problem with Pittsburgh and Sidney Crosby being involved in a second game, or Detroit hosting a Winter Classic in the near future even if the Red Wings have already been in one.

We are guessing it is a formality that wherever the game is held next year, the Washington Capitals and Alex Ovechkin will be involved in some way. It is mystifying that three events have passed without the Caps being involved.

It appears the issue of including Canadian franchises in the mix has been resolved with the decision to play an outdoor game in Canada, likely in Calgary, sometime next season, perhaps coinciding with "Hockey Day in Canada." So, it appears likely the Winter Classic will remain an American event for the foreseeable future.

In the end, the challenge of maintaining the Classic's magical spark isn't about being fair, it's about making the right choices.

Given the standards set the past three years, continuing to make those right choices will become more and more difficult.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.