A little rain won't derail Winter Classic

PITTSBURGH -- As the rain teemed down in the third period of the NHL's fourth Winter Classic on Saturday night and the puck bounced around the rink plunked down in the middle of Heinz Field like a tennis ball on steroids, we were reminded that sometimes you have to choose between the spectacle and the game.

And if spectacle is OK, then the Winter Classic is once again a winner, even if the unusually heavy rain first pushed the start time back seven hours and then stripped the game of any flow or finesse.

"What a wonderful hockey experience," a beaming Washington GM George McPhee told ESPN.com after his Caps had vanquished the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1.

"Coming down the tunnel [onto the field], it's a pretty amazing feeling," Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby added. "And playing hockey in front of that many people, it's something that probably none of us ever dreamed of doing. Would have been nice to be on the other side of things, but it's still a privilege to be part of that."

But if you believe the integrity of the game should never be compromised regardless of how many additional eyes were on this game and the league, then Saturday's waterlogged Washington victory is a debacle.

The conditions witnessed by an announced crowd of 68,111 so adversely affected the way the game was played, the Penguins will not even rate their players as they normally do after every game.

"It's hard to evaluate your guys, so we'll take the experience," Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero told ESPN.com. "It's great to be part of it."

But know this: In both locker rooms, not a discouraging word was heard about how this event unfolded, even in the Pittsburgh room, where they dropped two points to one of their biggest rivals.

The Penguins have played in two of the four Winter Classics, and there were parallels to the first one they took part in four years ago in Buffalo. That night in 2008, increasingly heavy snow prompted numerous interruptions of the third period for additional cleaning of the ice, and by the time Crosby scored in a shootout, you could barely see the puck.

Despite the disappointing outcome Saturday night, both on the scoreboard and in terms of the conditions, Shero remains a Winter Classic fan.

"As long as the safety of the players is not compromised, it could be rain, snow, sleet, doesn't matter, it's fantastic to be part of it," he said. "We're so fortunate to be part of two. It's a great event."

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said he was in constant contact with ice guru Dan Craig and the league's hockey operations department throughout the game and there were no complaints from either team. "I think we were fine, just fine," Bettman said.

The commissioner noted he has heard many complaints over the years about the ice conditions in indoor rinks, so people shouldn't be too critical of Saturday's conditions.

"This is reality hockey when you take it outdoors. It becomes a little unpredictable," Bettman said. "It may be, just like the game in Buffalo, the elements had an influence, and when you look back on this event, it will have its own legend, its own storyline because of what we saw tonight."

Surprisingly, none of the Penguins (at least publicly) had any issue with the game being played. Not one suggested the league should have delayed the game or done anything other than play.

"I definitely think the ice was playable. We could definitely play on it," Pittsburgh forward Mike Rupp said. "I don't think there should have been any more of a delay of any sort to wait for better time. I think that those guys did a heck of a job getting the ice ready and it was as good as it could be."

In the end, the question the league has to ask is whether it was worth it. The players seemed to agree unequivocally that it is.

"I think so. Look at the stage we were on. It's good for hockey," Pittsburgh forward Max Talbot said. "You want to sell the game, you want to sell the market in the United States. I don't know the ratings, but I'm sure it was great, and I'm sure that the fans enjoyed the game, so, yes, it's worth it, and for us players, it's fun too."

So, now what?

A little drizzle sure isn't going to derail the Winter Classic machine, that much is certain. And with four of these under its belt, the league is entering an interesting phase in the event's evolution. The naturals have all been done -- the trips to Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, the Ovechkin-Crosby matchup. These games have provided a solid foundation moving forward, but now is when things get trickier. The league must balance introducing new blood into the mix while not endangering the foundation put in place by the first four efforts.

We've already seen the Penguins twice in four years. Guess what? We have no problem with that. If Crosby et al take part in the Classic every third or fourth year, there will be no shortage of rivals itching to get on the bill with them and the ratings will still be through the roof.

The Washington Capitals are expected to host a Winter Classic in the next two or three years, presumably at FedEx Field, and if they wanted to throw the Pens and Caps together for Sid and Ovi Outside, Part Deux, we would have no problem with that either.

"The answer is yes. I can't wait to do it," Caps owner Ted Leonsis told a small group of reporters in a jubilant Caps dressing room Saturday when asked about hosting the event. "But just watching and looking at the all the logistics involved, it's pretty daunting. Pittsburgh was fantastic, fantastic hosts. The highlight for me was two sections filled with Caps fans and Pens fans and they looked at each other and they started chanting, 'Flyers suck.' It's like they bonded around something."

As our colleague Pierre LeBrun reported Friday, Philadelphia is an early front-runner to host the 2012 Winter Classic at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. If that's the case, look for the New York Rangers, the only American-based Original Six franchise yet to take part in the Classic, to be the opposition. NBC has long loved that matchup and the two teams are great Atlantic Division rivals.

Yes, the Flyers were in the 2009 Winter Classic as visitors in Boston. So what? Along with the Flyers, Chicago, Detroit and Boston can all count on being regular participants in the Classic.

"I think there is an ongoing debate, which you're very familiar with, about how do you keep it special and then how do you really meet the fan demand, the city demand, the business partner demand for more of these games," NHL COO John Collins said this week. "How do you not go back to Chicago and Boston in the next 15 years? It seems like you'd want to be able to do that."

He's right.

Why not have the Blackhawks at Soldier Field?

The challenge for the NHL is in opening the door to other teams, other venues. It must remain a cruelly selective process, though. Many have suggested Minnesota would be a natural to host a Winter Classic. Not a chance. Not with the team defined only by its mediocrity. This isn't a knock on the good fans in Minnesota, but simply having a lot of snow shouldn't be a ticket to getting a Winter Classic.

We think Denver and the Avs remain an intriguing possibility. The Avs are a young and dynamic team. What about a game in Detroit at the University of Michigan's Big House featuring the Wings and the Avs in the next couple of years? Then, if the Avs continue to evolve and become a Cup contender, go to Denver for a Winter Classic.

There are other issues that must be resolved, including the Heritage Classic being jammed into this year's schedule in Calgary next month.

If you scrap it, there will be complaints from the six Canadian franchises who will say they are being frozen out of the NHL's signature regular-season event. To that we say, too bad. This is an event designed to capture the imagination of Americans; that mandate remains, regardless of any carping from north of the border.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.