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Flyers to face Rangers in Winter Classic at ballpark

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - The Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers will take their rivalry outside as the two teams are set to clash in the 2012 Winter Classic, the National Hockey League (NHL) said on Monday.

The teams will face off at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Ballpark, a 43,500-seat stadium that is home for Major League Baseball's (MLB) Philadelphia Phillies, on January 2.

What began as a one-off tribute to hockey's outdoor roots has quickly grown into a marketing colossus, a New Year's Day tradition that has brought the NHL unprecedented exposure and some of the league's best TV ratings.

But the NHL has decided to move the Winter Classic from its usual January 1 slot this time to avoid putting its marquee event up against the final day of the National Football League (NFL) regular season.

"This has become one of the most anticipated sporting events there is on the annual calendar," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told a news conference at Citizens Bank Ballpark. "It generates excitement and anticipation for our game, for our players and for our league."

According to Bettman, last year's Winter Classic between the Pittsburgh Penguins and visiting Washington Capitals at Heinz Field was the league's most-watched regular season game since 1975.

This game will mark the fifth consecutive year the NHL will hold an outdoor game around the new year, and third to be held at a MLB ballpark following Chicago's Wrigley Field (2009) and Boston's Fenway Park (2010).

The first Winter Classic was played in 2008 at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the NFL's Buffalo Bills.

One of the hottest tickets on the NHL calendar, the Winter Classic has routinely sold out and the 2012 showcase should be no different with the game featuring one of the league's most fierce rivalries.

The Flyers and Rangers have been division rivals since the 1974-75 NHL season and have played each other a combined 308 times in the regular season and playoffs.

"The Rangers-Flyers rivalry is one of our very best," said Bettman. "It's only a relatively short distance from Broadway to Broad Street and over the years these not so neighborly teams have provided an assortment of memorable games.

"There is every expectation that the 2012 Winter Classic will provide more great moments."

(Writing by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Frank Pingue)