Winter Classic is more than a game

PHILADELPHIA -- It is perhaps a measure of the success of the NHL's Winter Classic that the game itself -- in this case a dramatic 3-2 comeback victory by the New York Rangers over the host Philadelphia Flyers in front of 46,967 fans -- no longer defines the event.

A year after being forced by rain to move the game in Pittsburgh from an early-afternoon start to prime time, the league slightly altered the start time Monday and was rewarded with near-perfect conditions as cloud cover eliminated concerns about glare from the sun, which had been the case earlier in the week. Late in the game, snow flurries hung in the air, giving the league the kind of frosty optics that have helped make it a television-ratings success and giant revenue generator.

On the ice, this might have been the most dramatic of the five Winter Classics (and the two Heritage Classics in Canada, for that matter).

New York Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist stopped a penalty shot by Philadelphia's Danny Briere with 19.6 seconds left in the game to preserve the victory for the Atlantic Division leaders, who were down 2-0 at one point.

But for fans who weren't among those who filled Citizens Bank Park for Monday's game, the Winter Classic experience may be remembered for Saturday's alumni game featuring former stars from both franchises -- which was attended by more than 45,000 people. Or the event might mean taking in an AHL game between the Flyers' affiliate and the Hershey Bears on Jan. 6 -- also expected to draw more than 45,000 fans. Or maybe the experience will be in attending a public skate on the ice surface that magically appeared in the middle of the home of the Phillies or taking in a high school or college game that will also be held there.

In short, the hotly contested NHL game has become part of the fabric of a larger hockey quilt.

"It was an incredible weekend for the city and for our fans and I think everybody had a good time until the end," Flyers owner Ed Snider said while visiting the Flyers locker room.

"It came off better than I would have imagined. We had a great weekend here. The alumni game was a total sellout; I think that set a new standard I think for the league and I hope it works that way in every other city. We were really proud of our fans."

The fact the bar continues to rise for the Winter Classic doesn't suggest the NHL game will become irrelevant. In fact, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman respectfully suggested we were perhaps backing into the quilt analogy.

He suggested that everything that has grown up around the game, all of the ancillary events and opportunities to promote and, yes, sell the game are possible because the centerpiece remains a game that has managed to become both a spectacle and meaningful.

"It starts with the fact that it's a game that counts," Bettman told ESPN.com before the game. None of the other stuff works "without the centerpiece which is a game in the elements."

Bettman noted that two years ago the Flyers and Rangers met in the final game of the regular season with a playoff berth on the line. The Flyers won in a shootout and went on to the Stanley Cup finals. Meanwhile, the Rangers went down.

"These two points matter," Bettman said.

Some have quibbled with the notion that a game in the middle of a baseball field or an NFL stadium -- as was the case last year in Pittsburgh and at Ralph Wilson Stadium for the first Winter Classic in 2008 -- has little to do with the game's roots. And many of the players who took part in Monday's game never spent much time playing outdoors.

Mike Rupp, the Rangers' scoring star on this day with two goals, recalled playing driveway hockey in the Cleveland area. But maybe that's the point, that a game like this appeals because it taps into some hockey memory. Maybe it wasn't the classic Canadian or Northeastern pond hockey memory but does it matter as long as it resonates -- which this game clearly does.

It's funny to note that most of the shots taken at the event come from north of the border and mostly from people who have not attended a Winter Classic.

Still not sure what the negatives are from an event that allows 45,000 people to see a hockey game and draws record-breaking numbers of hockey fans to their televisions, but no one eats their own quite like hockey journalists.

And this isn't to suggest the event is perfect.

There was no need for the NHL to have had to move the start time from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. ET. The issue of the sun should have been anticipated. In fact, several sources told ESPN.com it was an issue that had been raised, but for broadcast reasons the 1 p.m. start time was favored. But it was absolutely the right call to move the start back two hours.

But that was a minor inconvenience.

The conditions outside will always create something that is different than a game played in a climate-controlled state-of-the-art arena. No kidding.

There is wind, the odd snow flurry. The puck may behave differently.

Does it make a mockery of the game?

No. In the same way that the differences in Major League Baseball's stadium dimensions create differences within the context of the rules of the game, the outdoor game creates something unique without fundamentally changing the game itself.

"It's been amazing. The whole buildup," Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist said.

"So, it was exciting to be here and already at practice yesterday, it was fun to get a feeling for it, and today, it was just amazing, the atmosphere. I thought they did a great job with the ice."

Do we want to see 10 outdoor games every year? No.

And Bettman told reporters after the game the league is cognizant of the potential to dilute the product in spite of the clamoring from most teams, if not every team, in the league to either be involved in the Winter Classic or create some other outdoor experience.

"It's possible for [teams] to petition [for an outdoor game], but under the circumstances, we are tightly controlling the number of outdoor games we have," Bettman said.

"There has been considerable debate, both outside my office and within the league and from the clubs. There are a number of clubs who say, 'I want this, and even if I've hosted it, I don't want to wait 10 years to get it back. So let's do more and more and more.' Other people say this has become a special event, because it's special, it's unique and that's something that, over time, we'll probably continue to wrestle with. But I don't think we are going to change the format in the short term."

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.