NEW YORK -- By 9:30 on Monday morning -- some three and a half hours before the puck was scheduled to drop at the 2018 NHL Winter Classic between the Rangers and Sabres -- Rangers fan Bill Carter and his family were already an hour deep into their tailgate in the Citi Field parking lot, undeterred by the 10-degree temperature.
"This is the chance of a lifetime," said Carter. "My kids are going to remember this for the rest of their lives."
Among those with Carter was his niece, Kelly Kramer, who was about to attend her first-ever hockey game in some rather extreme circumstances, and who like everyone else in attendance had layered up in preparation for a long day in the frigid weather.
No one in Carter's family was under the delusion that this was any sort of ideal weather for hockey -- by game time it would rise to only 16 degrees -- but for a game like this, that's sort of the point.
"This is absolutely nuts," said Carter, "but that makes it special. If it was 70 degrees, everybody would be here."
This was hardly a unique line of thinking among the fans at the game.
"I wanted the whole experience," said Derek Witt, a Rangers fan from New Jersey, who also arrived extra early to set up his Hockey Sauce Kit in the Citi Field lot. "I wanted to suffer through the cold like the players are gonna have to in a little bit. It doesn't come around all the time."
A few feet away, Rangers fan Mark Colasuonno had his own tailgate set up. "We look forward to the announcement every year to see who's playing, and this year it was our turn, so we got tickets right away."
All of this, of course, is the NHL's dream for the Winter Classic: to whip up major excitement around a regular-season game and to create a midseason celebration of the sport beyond the traditional All-Star weekend. They've turned suffering through unpleasant conditions into something fans can't wait to do (and then pay major money for once given the chance). The Winter Classic, more so than any other outdoor hockey game, is designed to drum up television ratings. But fans in the host city reliably turn out, too, wanting to experience what they've seen on TV at Wrigley Field or Fenway Park or Michigan Stadium.
It's now been 10 years since the first Winter Classic in Buffalo, and it's long been clear that the game is the NHL's best innovation in recent memory. Even a game like this year's -- one played with a little less hype -- drew a sell-out crowd despite the frigid temperatures. The league has built the Winter Classic into a bona fide experience, and it is, to borrow the terminology of the 2018 host venue's primary sport, a total home run.
It wasn't always so obvious that outdoor hockey would be such a hit. When the Oilers and Canadiens faced off in Edmonton in the Heritage Classic in 2003, American fans couldn't see José Théodore and his toque-topped goalie mask, because the game wasn't even televised live in the United States. Former Islanders public-relations man Chris Botta once recalled the "naysayers" who "didn't put in the effort to dream big" when the Isles initiated discussions about playing a game at the old Yankee Stadium, before there were ever plans for the inaugural Winter Classic in Buffalo. NBC, meanwhile, wanted a New Year's Day game at Yankee Stadium in 2005 between the Rangers and Bruins, and the NHL at the time was reportedly "lukewarm" on the idea. And as plans for what would become the Winter Classic began to finally come together, the Sabres were the only team willing to host the game.
Now, of course, the Winter Classic is the jewel of the league's regular-season schedule. Teams are lined up to host one, and the league is so giddy at the idea of taking the game outdoors that it's invented new opportunities to do so, from the Stadium Series to the continuation of the Heritage Classic to a pair of games last year celebrating the NHL's 100th anniversary.
Indeed, there are legitimate questions about whether the league has watered down the Winter Classic too much by playing so many outdoor games. (Monday's game was the NHL's 23rd outdoor contest since the start of 2008, with another coming at Annapolis in March.) And as time goes on, it'll increasingly be a challenge to find interesting venues that will pique the curiosity of the casual fan. (Think Wrigley or Fenway or next year's site, Notre Dame Stadium.)
But the 41,821 fans who watched the Rangers beat the Sabres 3-2 in overtime on Monday didn't care about any of that. And for that matter, neither did the players who suited up for the Rangers and Sabres.
"I could easily play one every year, and I would not be tired of it," said Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist. "You play 82 games [a season], but to get this opportunity in front of so many people, and the excitement around the game, it doesn't get old to me."
Lundqvist is perhaps eager to play more outdoor games because he personally has thrived in them. He now owns a perfect 4-0 record in two Winter Classics and two Stadium Series games. His teammate Kevin Shattenkirk, who also played in last year's Winter Classic as a member of the Blues, didn't sound like he was getting tired of playing outdoors, either.
"I think warmups, the national anthem, the flyover, and the bald eagle -- that stuff is something that you can't beat," said Shattenkirk. "There's those little moments, those TV timeous -- I know I was smiling most of the game, and just really enjoying it and looking around when I could and soaking it all up."
And even in a losing effort, Sabres coach Phil Housley said he appreciated the opportunity for his team to play in a Winter Classic.
"I know if you talk to everybody in that room today, obviously we'd have liked for the result to be different, but it's just a great experience. I think the fans got their money's worth."