Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby and Coach Barry Trotz have a word on the ice prior to Wednesday’s practice at Nationals Park. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Early Thursday afternoon, under what are expected to be sunny New Year’s Day skies, roughly 42,000 long-john-wearing folks will file into a baseball stadium in Southeast Washington to watch, of all things, a hockey game. A decade ago, such a development would have seemed inconceivably out of place — not just in the nation’s capital, but in those U.S. and Canadian cities that actually consider themselves capitals of hockey. Now, when the puck is dropped, no mildly cognizant sports fan will so much as blink.

The National Hockey League’s Winter Classic is new to Washington, but is entrenched in the North American sports landscape as a New Year’s Day staple. Thursday’s matchup between the hometown Capitals and the visiting Chicago Blackhawks will be the seventh version of this game, but its established tradition and its arrival in the District tell the story of both a sport and a professional hockey team that have spent much of the past two decades fighting to remain relevant — and grow.

A decade ago, the NHL endured a labor dispute that wiped out a full season. Its national television deal didn’t rake in money like those of the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball. Back then, the NFL was a $6 billion business, MLB worth roughly $4.75 billion. The NHL, according to league officials, stood at about $2.2 billion.

The sport wanted to pitch itself as fast, edgy, worthy of the attention of 20- and 30-somethings. But there was a sense inside the league’s offices in New York and Toronto that new territory had to be staked out.

“A lot of what we were talking about was how the NFL business had kind of evolved . . . in terms of how they build that kind of big scale and the way it translates nationally,” said John Collins, the NHL’s chief operating officer who came to hockey from the NFL. “Sports is tribal. You root for your favorite team. But because they’ve had a 40-year history of ‘Monday Night Football’ and other things, everybody tunes in to watch it.

A wand. 20,000 gallons of water. And an ice magician. Putting a portable hockey rink together.

“Nobody ever canceled their Super Bowl party because they didn’t like the two teams that were in the game. That was the kind of behavior we hoped to create in the NHL business.”

The Winter Classic is as close as hockey can come. It is wildly successful at the gate and over the airwaves, one that has twice been named Sports Business Journal’s event of the year and has helped the NHL grow into a nearly $4 billion entity. A meaningful competition — Thursday’s game will be worth two points in the standings, just as the 81 others each team will play — it also encompasses the best elements of a showcase.

“I would argue that no other sport has a regular-season game that is as meaningful as the Winter Classic is,” said Bethesda native Jon Miller, the president of programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN.

Miller’s network, which has carried each Winter Classic, has also mastered the imagery of the game, and Thursday’s broadcast promises homages to the military with panoramic shots of the Capitol — ensconced in scaffolding, but unmistakable — in the background, just a mile north of center ice.

“We’re not only going to get a great event for our fans,” Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said, “but we’re going to get a three-hour love letter to the city.”

For sports fans, this is, by now, an expected and accepted way to change over the calendar. But there is a long list of planets that had to align in order for such an event to fit in seamlessly with the Rose Bowl and Alka-Seltzer on New Year’s Day.

A New Year’s Day opening

There is some debate about who had the original idea for the Winter Classic (its official name is the Bridgestone Winter Classic). But there is no debating the importance of two events that preceded it: the “Cold War” college game between Michigan and Michigan State that brought more than 74,000 fans to Michigan State’s football stadium in 2001. That game begat the Heritage Classic, staged by the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers in 2003. Each had the same effect on NHL officials: What might be possible?

The NHL Winter Classic: 2008 to present

“The league sort of looked out of the corner of its collective eye, and sort of watched it — keeping an arm’s length relationship,” said Ken Yaffe, a former NHL official who was in charge of events when the Oilers drew a then-record 57,167 fans — in sub-zero temperatures — to see Edmonton host the Montreal Canadiens. It was so cold that day that the ice chipped off in plate-sized chunks, that the goaltenders wore toques. Many people would have considered it miserable. Hockey people reveled in it.

“It’s one of those memories, your friends still talk about it,” said Capitals forward Jason Chimera, an Edmonton native who was an Oiler then. “They won’t stop. You’ll never forget it. There’s something about the outdoors and hockey. It doesn’t get any better.”

When Collins joined the NHL in 2006, the images of that game — the breath of the players visible in the frigid air cast against a sellout crowd — adorned the offices of many league executives. Miller had already broached the idea of an outdoor game with his bosses at NBC; he wanted it staged at Yankee Stadium between the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers just months after the Red Sox’s epic comeback against the Yankees in 2004.

The network had an issue spurring it forward: Long a home for college football on New Year’s Day, it was divesting itself of that sport, which had taken the old Jan. 1 bowl lineup and strewn it out over the course of a week or more. NBC was ending its relationship with the Gator Bowl, and had an open time slot.

“A lot of people thought we were crazy for suggesting to play hockey on New Year’s Day,” Miller said. “But my feeling was: College football had ceded the day. A lot of people don’t want to get off the couch that day, and you can only watch so many who-kissed-your-sister bowls at 1 o’clock.”

So with the groundwork laid in Michigan and then Edmonton, and with the motivation of filling empty air space and gaining a national stage for a sport that lacked one, Collins and Miller championed the cause at the NHL and NBC, respectively. When NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman gave the go-ahead to pursue the idea, only after it had been heavily vetted, he understood the implication. They couldn’t control the weather. They didn’t know whether they could fill a football stadium. But they had to try.

“I said, ‘If we can pull it off, it’ll be great. If we can’t, it’ll be a disaster,’ ” Bettman said. “There wasn’t really any in-between.”

On Jan. 1, 2008, Bettman, Collins and Miller stood on the outskirts of an outdoor rink at Buffalo’s Rich Stadium, home of the NFL’s Bills, where snowflakes fell on 71,217 fans, many of whom had begun tailgating that morning. Collins recalls Miller saying, “You know, this is what it used to feel like when we used to come up to Buffalo for AFC championship games.”

That day, Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, the league’s most talented and marketable young star, scored the game-winning goal in a shootout.

“We thought, ‘Okay, maybe we’ve got something here,’ ” Miller said. “Maybe we’ll do it next year.”

Bringing the game to D.C.

When Leonsis watched that first Classic from home, his Capitals were coming off three straight last-place finishes and had just fired their coach over Thanksgiving. They had a young star to match Crosby in Russian Alex Ovechkin, but no national reputation and little local buzz. And yet as the snow fell in Buffalo, “It took about two minutes for me to want one of these games.”

Leonsis said this on a Saturday night in December, sitting in the owner’s suite at Verizon Center as the Capitals hosted the Tampa Bay Lightning, dressed in a red zip-up sweater and a red vest. In front of him, the 237th consecutive sellout crowd of 18,506 dressed similarly in team colors — with some wrinkles. Just five rows down, one fan wore a jersey of Capitals forward Troy Brouwer, but in a special design specifically for the Winter Classic. The Brouwer fan was only a few seats over from another Winter Classic jersey, this with center Nicklas Backstrom’s No. 19.

“When I first asked about having a Winter Classic, they were very nice,” Leonsis said of those at the league offices. “But I don’t think they took me seriously.”

But Bettman called Leonsis’s pursuit “relentless,” and NHL officials noticed when Al Michaels, NBC’s respected NFL play-by-play man, remarked during a Redskins broadcast about how many fans were wearing Capitals gear in Washington. And when the NHL paired the Capitals with the Penguins for a 2011 Winter Classic matchup in Pittsburgh, the Capitals sold 20,000 tickets to their fans.

“Everybody was a little bit nervous for that game,” Capitals forward Eric Fehr recalled. “It was a regular season game but it had a different feel to it. It felt almost like a playoff game. There was a nervous energy in the room.”

And then Fehr scored twice in a 3-1 Washington win, one of the signature performances in the franchise’s regular-season history. “Unforgettable,” he said. The event, pushed into prime time by rainy weather, was the most watched regular season game in NHL history, drawing nearly 4.6 million viewers and outdrawing the other networks at that time. No, hockey can’t overcome America’s obsession with football; the 2011 Rose Bowl drew more than 20 million viewers. But for hockey, the exposure is important.

“Especially in the States, where people aren’t as familiar with it,” said Fehr, a native of Manitoba in Canada, “it’s great to have that stage.”

Thursday, the Capitals and Blackhawks will become the fourth and fifth teams to play in two Winter Classics, joining history-rich franchises from Detroit, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The NHL actually “buys” the game from the Capitals — guaranteeing the franchise the revenue it would receive from an average home date — and handles everything else, from the ice surface to the rent for Nationals Park to the pregame ceremonies.

Through games in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Ann Arbor, it has done so successfully. Not only is the event planted in the sports calendar — indeed, it begins it — Collins said it has helped fundamentally alter the way the league conducts business. A decade ago, perhaps 95 percent of revenue was produced by the individual teams. Now, a quarter of that money comes nationally through sponsors such as Bridgestone, through a new television deal with NBC, through its digital media. Face value on tickets for Thursday’s game range from $79 to $349, but even the worst seats were commanding nearly $300 on the secondary market Wednesday. The Winter Classic also spawned a sister property, the “Stadium Series,” which last season produced four additional outdoor games — including one at Dodger Stadium and two at Yankee Stadium.

That series has brought with it its share of criticism that the NHL is watering down the outdoor product. Though Bettman bristles at such talk — “It hasn’t gotten old, and if you haven’t experienced it at all, you want to,” he said in a phone interview — the league clearly wants to preserve what’s made the Winter Classic a success, to make sure the feel that’s coming to Washington on Thursday — outdoor NHL hockey for the first time in the District’s history — remains singular.

“I think we’re trying to balance sort of the demand,” Collins said, “and really how to keep it special.”