Those events brought such positive attention that the 2013-14 season will include six outdoor games. The league is responding to complaints about watering down the product with a simple message: it's giving fans what they want.
"If you're looking at it on a national basis, obviously we're doing more," commissioner Gary Bettman said Thursday at Yankee Stadium, which will host two games in January. "But for teams and markets that want to host this (event), for fans that want to attend, we can't do enough of them."
In Canada and the United States, the NHL's "Stadium Series" that includes stops at Los Angeles' Dodger Stadium, Chicago's Soldier Field and Yankee Stadium and the Heritage Classic in Vancouver might not get as much attention as the Winter Classic in Ann Arbor, Mich. But within those areas, they're can't-miss events.
"The reason we're doing more outdoor games is really what it's now doing locally," Bettman said. "This is an incomparable event and what happens is fans get connected to the game in ways they never imagined, we get new fans who, for the first time, will come and be a part of this. This is a fan-oriented, fan-driven event, and that's why we're doing so many games so we can bring it to more fans."
The league expects all six outdoor games to be sellouts. That's reason enough for Bettman to think that the NHL isn't providing too much of a good thing.
"Fans love attending this event, the demand that we're hearing and feeling from our teams and markets and venues wanting to host this game is overwhelming," Bettman said. "So if you're actually getting an opportunity to attend this game, you don't think we're doing too many of them."
Going for six in a span of just over two months is part of what NHL COO John Collins called a "pretty unique" season thanks to the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. Planning six outdoor games had a lot to do with timing.
The Winter Classic returns to its New Year's Day spot when the Toronto Maple Leafs face off against the Detroit Red Wings at Michigan Stadium. The Anaheim Ducks play the Los Angeles Kings at Dodger Stadium the night before the Grammy Awards, and the games between the Rangers and the New Jersey Devils and then the Islanders at Yankee Stadium take place during the lead-up to the Super Bowl at Metlife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
"Super Bowl?" Bettman asked rhetorically. "The fact that the Super Bowl happens to be played in NJ around the same time is a plus, but this was really NHL-centric."
At best it's impeccable timing and more likely a strategic way for hockey to get attention during as part of the biggest sporting event on the calendar. And it's also not a coincidence that two outdoor games, the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Chicago Blackhawks at Soldier Field and the Heritage Classic between the Ottawa Senators and Vancouver Canucks at BC Place, take place the week after players return from Sochi.
Chicago is the first city to host a Winter Classic and then get another outdoor game. But Bettman hinted that others — like Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Boston and Philadelphia — could benefit if the NHL decides to host multiple outdoor games in the coming years.
"If you're a team that's hosted one, now you're not going to wait 10 or 12 years to get another one back," Bettman said. "(And) for markets and teams that haven't had a chance to host it, this brings it more of a reality sooner."
Those markets include Washington and Minneapolis/St. Paul, either of which could host the 2014 Winter Classic or a Stadium Series game. Reports have also cited Penn State University's Beaver Stadium as a potential site for a Flyers-Penguins game.
One reason why the NHL isn't reluctant to experiment with different cities and venues is the impact outdoor games can have on teams, well after the stadium rink is removed.
"I think we've seen it over the last five, six years, in the markets that we've been in," Collins said. "We've been in Chicago — just at the beginning of their big run where the Blackhawks talked about how it did a couple things. One, they sold a ton more season tickets because that was the way fans could be guaranteed to get tickets into Wrigley. And two, it raised the relevance of the Blackhawks in the Chicago market ahead of them winning the Stanley Cup. … We saw it in Pittsburgh in terms of the impact that the game had in Pittsburgh, which is a football town becoming a hockey town, too."
Winning titles likely played more of a role in those burgeoning fan bases, but hosting the Winter Classic didn't hurt. And Bettman doesn't think it hurts to have six outdoor games instead of one or two, or roughly 0.4 per cent of the 1,230 regular-season games.
"I don't think we're overdoing them at all," he said. "We're actually responding to the incredible interest and demand we're getting."
It's unclear if six is the limit, or if there's a ceiling on how many outdoor games the NHL can hold in a season. Collins said CBC, NBC, the Players' Association and owners want to see how it goes this time.
"We're obviously testing ourselves and our hockey operations department to make sure we can put on these six games. We're confident that we can," Bettman said. "But we'll take a deep breath when all six are over and evaluate what made sense, what we can do better and whether or not we can even do more."