PHILADELPHIA - Long before there was an NHL or even a Stanley Cup, the rivalry between the cities of Philadelphia and New York existed.
New York is the obvious heavy in the matchup; a gigantic, world-class metropolis that is featured ubiquitously in movies and TV and whose skyline is instantly recognizable all over the globe.
Ninety miles to the south lies Philadelphia, the fifth-largest city in the U.S. that has somehow fashioned itself into the little guy thanks to its close proximity to the Big Apple. The fact that Philadelphians will never fully escape the gigantic shadow cast by Gotham is understood by residents of the City of Brotherly Love, even if they never openly admit it.
So, when the Philadelphia Flyers host the New York Rangers this Monday in the Winter Classic, the players know that the fans they're skating for will think of it as more than just a hockey game.
Not to take anything away from some of the previous Winter Classic matchups that pitted Chicago against Detroit, Pittsburgh against Washington or even Philly against Boston, but this year's outdoor game has the best storyline of them all. Of course, nothing so far has matched the Blackhawks-Red Wings matchup for pure hockey history, but those teams play in cities nearly 300 miles apart from each other and can't compete with NYC-Philly for mutual dislike.
New York and Philadelphia are like next-door neighbors that simply will never get along, but they won't burn down each other's houses either. The competition between the towns grew right alongside the country and the United States is better off because of that healthy game of one-upmanship.
While the animosity is very real at times, a begrudging respect has built up between the two cities, which are more alike than members of either town are willing to admit. The differences are often blown out of proportion, while the similarities get lost in arguments over whether thin-crust pizza or cheese steaks are the better food option.
In many ways, the upcoming outdoor spectacle at Citizens Bank Park -- home of MLB's Philadelphia Phillies -- has helped bring the cities closer together. That could be seen Wednesday night in Manhattan, where the Empire State Building was lit up in Rangers' colors on the east and west sides and shown in Flyers' Orange on the north and south sections.
One of the great things about the Winter Classic is that teams work together to promote the event. It's not good enough for the matchup to create excitement just in the cities where the teams play, but to appeal to hockey fans all over North America, die-hard and casual enthusiasts alike.
In an interview with the NHL network earlier this month, NBC's Bob Costas, who has been a part of every Winter Classic broadcast, summed up the rivalry as you would expect him too -- in baseball terms.
"You know, at Citizens Bank Park, when the Mets come to Philadelphia, there is no love lost, especially a couple of years ago when the Mets and Phillies were both contenders," Costas said. "You don't have to really prompt Philadelphia fans to feel venomous to really any opposition, especially if the opposition is wearing a New York uniform.
"People need to know what the subplots are, what the backstories are, and there are lots you can sink your teeth into with this one."
In fact, the backstory looms so large over this year's outdoor event that the hockey aspects can't help but take second billing. There will be high-scoring superstars on the ice like Philadelphia's Claude Giroux and New York's Marian Gaborik, but the classic rivalry between the Big Apple and Philly trumps those individual matchups.
Well, at least until the puck drops, anyway.
In the end, this year's Classic will be a hockey game between a pair of division rivals that are very close in the standings. It may still only be a regular season test, but the two points on the line are important. That's especially true for Philadelphia, which is 0-2 against the Rangers this season.
The hostility between these two cities has built up for centuries and it will likely be around for as long as the metropolises stand. On Monday afternoon, those heated passions will spill over to the ice and it could make this the best Winter Classic of them all.