Top Shelf: Outdoor games put NHL fandom on center stage

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Updated: 1/28 3:06 pm

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - While riding the "D Train" from Manhattan to the Bronx on Sunday afternoon, it was easy to see why the NHL has fallen in love with the outdoor game.

The subway cars were packed to the gills with folks donning the blue and red sweaters of the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils, respectively. Hundreds more stood on the platform, ready to squeeze their way onto the next train.

There was even a guy wearing a New York Islanders jersey. He was either confused about the date of the Rangers-Isles battle at Yankee Stadium, or was so excited ahead of Wednesday's game and couldn't wait to get a head-start on the festivities.

There is a feeling of excitement that borders on euphoria at these outdoor games, and once you see it in action, it's obvious why the NHL keeps trying to find new places to stage hockey games out in the open air. It doesn't matter if the weather is awful or the game seems a million miles away from your seat in the bleachers, the people can't seem to get enough when hockey is played among the elements.

Sunday's game between the Rangers and Devils was played before a sellout crowd at Yankee Stadium, and on Tuesday it was announced that Wednesday's tilt between the Islanders and Blueshirts also was sold out. Of course, the Winter Classic battle between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium was a sellout, as was Saturday's warm-weather Stadium Series clash between Anaheim and Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium.

The league's next outdoor game -- a March 1 tilt between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Blackhawks at Chicago's Soldier Field -- was sold out in less than 24 hours when tickets became available on Dec. 11.

Of the six scheduled outdoor games this season, the only one that isn't sold out yet is the Heritage Classic, and we still have over a month before that game on March 2 between the Vancouver Canucks and Ottawa Senators is played at BC Place. Even if the Vancouver game doesn't sell out, it's pretty clear that generating interest for these events is not at all difficult.

The cynics out there (myself included) have moaned about the increase in outdoor games over recent years because it seems like the NHL is running a great idea into the ground. Judging from the passion and joy emanating from the Bronx on Sunday, it's obvious the fans don't feel the same way as those of us lucky enough to cover the sport.

The scene at Yankee Stadium on Sunday was very similar to the one I witnessed at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia on Jan. 2, 2012, when the Rangers edged the Flyers in the Winter Classic. The game, and whatever outcome it holds for your team, takes a back seat to everything else.

So, Devils fans clearly weren't thrilled about getting pasted 7-3 by the Rangers, but the experience of being part of something special trumps all. It's not so much a party atmosphere as it is a total celebration of hockey fandom displayed in all its crazy glory.

And if you're lucky enough to be able to afford the ticket to witness the NHL outdoor extravaganza, chances are you're not going to complain about the sight lines. Or if you went to the game in L.A., you won't gripe about the brutal ice conditions that led to an ugly brand of hockey. You'll focus on the positives instead. After all, it's a unique experience and who knows when there will be another chance to see it roll into your town.

The NHL has hinted that they aren't planning to make every season awash in outdoor games like this 2013-14 campaign. They must realize it is possible to have too much of a good thing. It's no surprise this year's slate of six outdoor games comes on the heels of a lockout-shortened campaign. It was a shortcut for the league to get back in the good graces of its die-hard fan base, and it seems to be working.

The fact that these events are huge money-makers for both the league and the teams involved means the outdoor game isn't going anywhere. The only thing that can stop it is if fans lose interest and no longer show up to see the spectacle. Judging by the sea of jersey-clad people buzzing around the Bronx this week, it seems interest in outdoor hockey has yet to peak.

I've learned to stop worrying about outdoor overkill and to simply enjoy these events for what they are, and not what I think they should or could be.

After all, if people are willing to pay good money to sit in the freezing cold and go nuts about a game they can barely see, it speaks volumes about how well the NHL is doing right now in terms of marketing and selling its sport to the public. Considering that wasn't always such an easy task, it's hard to be critical of their eagerness to keep a good thing going.

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