Will Weather Ruin NHL Winter Classic?

Hockey fans are looking forward to the fourth annual outdoor NHL Winter Classic on New Year's Day in Pittsburgh. But it looks like it could rain. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis discusses the game and what the weather has in store.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

If the economy heats up, thats good news. But warm weather for the NHL Winter Classic, thats a problem. Yes, hockey fans are looking forward to the fourth annual outdoor New Years Day game tomorrow in Pittsburgh. But it looks like it could rain.

Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us now as he does most Fridays.

Hi there, Stefan.

Mr. STEFAN FATSIS (Sportswriter): Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: So this game was supposed to happen in the Pittsburgh Steelers stadium?

Mr. FATSIS: Correct. It was originally scheduled for 1:00 tomorrow. But the weather forecast was for rain all afternoon, tapering off in evening. So the NHL has moved the start time to 8 P.M. And the reason you need to do that is because wet ice could be dangerous for the players. And that in the evening it's supposed to be drier and cooler, and more hockey-like. And the league really wants to make this happen on Saturday.

Sixty-seven thousand fans are expected. The game's on NBC. Theyve got sponsor events all lined up. If it still a no-go Saturday night, they could play on Sunday afternoon, but then they would be going up against National Football League on TV, and that's not ideal.

CORNISH: And this seems to say to me that the Winter Classic is a really big deal for the NHL. I mean I dont know what their ratings have been like recently, but it sounds like they need this game to happen.

Mr. FATSIS: They do. They want this game to happen. It has become the sport's signature mass audience event. It looks different. It feels and sounds different than regular hockey. It identifies the sport with its roots. And it makes for great photos. And it's generated terrific business results for the league.

The three previous Winter Classics, in Buffalo in 2008 and then in Wrigley Field in Chicago and then Fenway Park in Boston, those were the highest-rated games for each of those regular seasons. The game has also been a big factor for revenue growth league-wide in recent years. You'll recall that the NHL was near the abyss six years ago. They lost entire season to a labor battle.

Now the battle is over - who's going to get the TV rights for the NHL, versus the cable channel. The incumbent has the games now, is going to be facing off against ESPN which wants to get back into the sport.

As for tomorrows game, here's an example of how much interest there is: 76 cameras will be in the stadium.

CORNISH: And we should note that many of those cameras actually will belong to HBO. The cable network has been running a reality show called "24/7 Penguins/Capitals, The Road To the Winter Classic."

I mean have you been watching this?

Mr. FATSIS: Oh, I've been watching it. It's been awesome. Superb production and editing. Theyve got cameras and microphones everywhere - on the ice, inside locker room, buses, hotel rooms, in the stands, inside players' homes, the referees' changing room. There's real depth to the storytelling, and characters and culture in hockey have been the stars.

In last episode, we saw the Capitals Mike Knuble getting metal braces removed from his jaw, which had broken. And then talking about how it could have been worse - he could have lost a row of teeth.

CORNISH: Oww.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FATSIS: Yeah, I know. And then even worse, wait till you see the pictures of this. You really need to go check these out, Audie.

The Penguins' Brian Lovejoy took a puck just below the eye. And we are there on the airplane when it swells up and he looks like Violet Beauregarde in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." And finally, you have the unexpurgated candor of the Canadian-accented Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau - he's a real character.

CORNISH: Oh, yes. Yes. We have a minute left but I have to play a clip of him. and I want to warn people: If you're sensitive to bleeping, you might want to turn the volume down on your radio now.

Mr. BRUCE BOUDREAU (Head Coach, Washington Capitals): What are you guys like prima donna perfect that if you can't (CENSORED) handle adversity, so (CENSORED) not going right. It's not (CENSORED) working the last 10 days (CENSORED) to get your heads out of your (CENSORED) and (CENSORED) make it work by outworking the opposition.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: There you have, Stefan.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FATSIS: Yeah, I mean this - I mean you really get a real sense of humanity of this sport, and the fact that the HBO cameras really manage to slip into the background.

This is a sport where the front-office executives arent jerks, the players love the game, the sense of the rivalries are real. The NHL was really smart to give HBO this access and it's paying off for them with big audiences and interest in this game.

The final episode of the HBO show is next Wednesday and you can watch the first three episodes online.

CORNISH: Thank you so much, Stefan.

Mr. FATSIS: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports. You can hear more of him on Slate.com's sports podcast "Hang Up and Listen."

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