Ice hockey returns to its outdoor roots for the second year in a row when the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings clash at Wrigley Field in what has become a New Year's Day tradition and the most important date on the NHL schedule.
|It's a bit nippy out there [GALLO/GETTY]
While the home of the Chicago Cubs baseball team provides a unique setting for the 'Winter Classic', there will be no more at stake than any other regular season game for the teams, who will be facing off for the 701st time.
For the National Hockey League (NHL), however, the outdoor concept that began as a novelty has blossomed into one of its biggest marketing events and a US television ratings bonanza – attracting curious and casual fans to a sport desperate to broaden its appeal.
"The rating (last year) is one thing and it was a very, very good number for hockey," said NBC sportscaster Bob Costas, who will commentate on the game.
"But 'buzz' is a different thing and for the week after that, everywhere I went it seemed, people were remarking about the game and how different it seemed and how it jumped out from the sport landscape."
The first outdoor game of the modern era was played in Edmonton, Canada, in November 2003 when more than 51,000 fans braved Arctic-like conditions to watch the hometown Oilers take on the Montreal Canadiens.
But the NHL had to wait nearly five years before revisiting the experiment, staging the first Winter Classic last New Year's Day – Sidney Crosby scoring in overtime in a driving snowstorm to earn the Pittsburgh Penguins a victory over the Buffalo Sabres.
In their droves
The game attracted an NHL-record crowd of 71,217 to Ralph Wilson stadium but the more significant numbers were the television ratings.
|Just add pucks, sticks etc [GALLO/GETTY]
Close to 4 million people watched on a day normally dominated by college football Bowl games.
Outdoor games are becoming increasingly popular, with Russia's fledgling Kontinental Hockey League scheduling its first All-Star game for January 10 in Moscow's Red Square.
Organisers of the 2010 ice hockey world championships in Germany will stage the opener at the home stadium of Schalke 04 soccer club with the aim of attracting a world-record crowd.
There is also no shortage of cities lining up to host a Winter Classic and the NHL signalled it is ready to now make this an annual event by purchasing state-of-the-art refrigeration and ice-making systems for a reported $2million.
Southern sleigh bells
Toronto, Montreal, Boston, New York and Detroit have all expressed interest in staging an outdoor game while improved ice-making technology may allow the NHL to put the showcase event in one of the league's southern markets.
While the forecast is for near freezing temperatures and snow flurries on Thursday the Winter Classic remains the hot ticket in chilly Chicago.
Nearly 250,000 fans entered a lottery for tickets that are now for sale online for $1,000 and more.
The Stanley Cup champion Red Wings blow into the Windy City riding the momentum from a 4-0 home win over Chicago on Tuesday that snapped the Blackhawks' franchise record nine-game win streak.
Ty Conklin stopped 37 shots to earn the shutout and is expected to get the start in the Detroit net on Thursday when he would become the only player to appear in all three NHL outdoor Classics.