Why the NHL's Lake Tahoe series is a risk -- and where the next fanless outdoor games could be played

What a lot of people don't realize about the first NHL Winter Classic is that it very well could have been the last NHL Winter Classic.

We remember Sidney Crosby scoring the game-winning goal on New Year's Day in 2008, in front of a raucous and frozen stadium crowd in Buffalo in a game that looked like it was being played inside a snow globe.

We remember that game between the Penguins and Sabres sparking the NHL's new era of outdoor games, which has spanned from Fenway Park to the Cotton Bowl to Dodger Stadium. We remember it as the moment when the NHL, still reeling from its canceled lockout season in 2004-05, showed it could transcend its niche status, plant its flag on a day meant for college football and draw a stadium's worth of fans to watch a regular-season hockey game.

What we don't really remember from that game: the risk.

The risk that the gameplay could be more atrocious than it was. The risk that a player could suffer a significant injury due to the unwieldy conditions. That no one, from fans to sponsors, would actually care enough about the outdoor game gimmick to want a second edition.

"If minor things had been different -- the weather maybe two or three degrees warmer than it was -- maybe the Winter Classic goes away," recalled Bill Daly to Sports Business Journal.

Instead, 11 more Winter Classic games and 19 other outdoor games would follow, including this weekend's NHL games at Lake Tahoe, pitting the Colorado Avalanche against the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday and the Philadelphia Flyers against the Boston Bruins on Sunday.

These games are like nothing the NHL has attempted before: outdoor games played without fans in attendance, whose success is completely reliant on the quality of the game itself and the landscape (and waterscape) around the rink.

It's hockey as it was meant to be played, on a "frozen pond" in the middle of a winter vista. But there's no stadium sell-out crowd buying $30 hats. There's no sponsor-filled village of booths and kiosks around the venue.

The Lake Tahoe games are either going to rewrite the rules of the league's outdoor game strategy or they're going to be a one-and-done pandemic curio. Essentially, this is another "Winter Classic moment" for the NHL.