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NBC hopes that Winter Classic outdoor game reaches big U.S. audience

The people who are preparing to telecast the Winter Classic outdoor game believe it will give the NHL something it rarely has - prime billing in the United States.

The New Year's Day game between Chicago and Detroit will be played at Wrigley Field and televised nationally in the U.S. on NBC. It will be shown on CBC and RDS in Canada.

One reason NBC feels optimistic is because the game offers the unique combination of a traditional NHL rivalry, the outdoor setting and one of the most storied stadiums in North America.

Another reason is the precedent that was set in Buffalo on New Year's Day 2008. The inaugural Winter Classic drew 3.7 million viewers in the U.S. - the largest audience for an NHL regular-season game in almost 12 years. To top it off, the game was played amid light snowfall and Penguins captain Sidney Crosby scored the winning goal in a shootout.

"You couldn't ask for anything more perfect than that," NBC host Bob Costas said Monday. "The rating is one thing - and that is measurable and it was a very, very good number for hockey - but buzz is a different thing.

"For the week after that, everywhere I went it seemed people were remarking about the game and how different it seemed and how it kind of jumped out from the sports landscape."

Even though buzz can be tough to gauge, the outdoor game concept seems to have struck a nerve. Russia's Kontinental Hockey League plans to hold its all-star game in Moscow's Red Square while the International Ice Hockey Federation announced Monday that the opening game of the 2010 world championship will be played at a soccer stadium in Germany.

Preparations for the Winter Classic are already underway. A 53-foot refrigeration trailer is expected to pull up to Waveland Avenue on Tuesday and start making the ice.

It will be the first hockey game ever played at the 94-year-old stadium.

"It's a baseball field of dreams and now the hockey guys get to take it over," said NBC co-ordinating producer Sam Flood.

The rink will stretch from first to third base and the teams will switch ends midway through the third period to prevent either from having an advantage because of wind. The same thing was done in Buffalo.

It's just another example of what sets the Winter Classic apart from any other NHL game that will be played this season.

"Weather is a big part of it," said Flood. "You obviously want a great scene. To me, to have it cold enough so that you can really see the breath of the players to accentuate that we're outdoors is all part of the visuals that you want."

There will be no shortage of cameras there to capture it.

The network plans to shoot the game from several different angles, including having a camera in an airplane. However, it doesn't believe that technology is the reason people will tune in.

"This isn't about toys, it's about the event," said Flood. "We have a ton of cameras. We have cameras everywhere from high up in the right field bleachers to a camera in the scoreboard to rink level cameras to a roving camera that can go to some of the great parties on the rooftops across the street.

"We're covered everywhere."

There will also be interest around what happens on the ice.

NBC analyst Ed Olczyk grew up in Chicago and had the chance to spend some time with the Blackhawks during his playing career. However, he never did that at the home of the Chicago Cubs.

"I'm just so envious and jealous of the guys that get that opportunity to play in that game," said Olczyk.

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