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A Guide to the NHL Winter Classic

Back in 2008, eleven years ago, the National Hockey League birthed its now famous outdoor game known as the Winter Classic. The inaugural match, set between the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins at Ralph Wilson Stadium (now known as New Era Field) home to the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, hosted 71,217 hockey fanatics. The Penguins would go on to win the game by a 2-1 score in dramatic fashion with Sidney Crosby scoring the game-winning shootout goal as snow flurries dusted the arena.

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The game was a great success by all estimations, from a record-setting crowd to final score that came down to a goal off the stick of one of the league’s best young players, all of this played under weather conditions reminiscent of childhood pond hockey.

Record-setting Crowds

That crowd of over 70 thousand would stand as the largest attendance for an NHL game until 2014, when fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings came together to pack iconic Michigan Stadium to the brim with a max capacity rolling in at 105,491.

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This game, also finishing in a shootout in favor of the Maple Leafs, was also played under snowy conditions, making a now iconic game, in an iconic college football stadium, all the more memorable for all spectators, from those in attendance to those watching in the warmth of their own homes.

The Modern Day Event

Jump forward to 2019 and the NHL yet again set the stage for the Winter Classic in another famed college football arena, this time in South Bend, Indiana at Notre Dame Stadium.

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Located just over 90 minutes from Chicago, the venue was a natural fit for the Blackhawks and their fan base, and what better opponent to have at the home of the Fighting Irish than the Boston Bruins, a team from a city so famously known for its Irish heritage.

This was the fourth time the Blackhawks were set to appear in a Winter Classic, and with two Stadium Series games under their belt as well, the Blackhawks’ appearance in South Bend would mark the six time the franchise participated in an outdoor game.

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This would be the Bruins third appearance in an outdoor game after hosting the Winter Classic twice previously, the first time a thrilling 2-1 overtime win against the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010 at Fenway Park, the second a disappointing loss to their long-time rival Montreal Canadiens at Gillette Stadium by a score of 5-1 on New Year’s Day 2016.

This was my second outdoor game. I was in attendance back in 2016 for that previously mentioned disappointing loss at the hands of the Canadiens. And this year’s Winter Classic was a must-see as far as I was concerned. I had never been to Notre Dame Stadium and the idea of watching the Bruins and the Blackhawks compete at such a storied venue was too much to pass up.

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Revitalizing a Classic

While Winter Classics over recent years seem to have lacked the massive enthusiasm and hype of some of the older and most memorable Winter Classics that I mentioned above, there was no doubt that upon entering Notre Dame Stadium on game day that the NHL had made an excellent decision in their choice of venue. Fans from both sides packed the stadium to capacity with a crowd of 76,126, the second largest attendance for an NHL game after only that match up between the Maple Leafs and Red Wings at The Big House in Ann Arbor.

 

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Despite being a thirteen-hour drive from Boston, with no easy flights to the venue, there was a large showing of Bruins supporters for the game. Fans tailgated in the parking lot, and filled local pubs before and after the event. The overall atmosphere was thrilling, pregame ceremonies honored past players on both teams, without taking too much time in getting to the main event, and the players themselves walked into the stadium the same way the Fighting Irish do before a home game.

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Just a Game

When it is all said and done the game means no more in the standings than any other regular season game. The Bruins’ 4-2 regulation win allowed them to leapfrog the Buffalo Sabres and retake third place in the Atlantic Division, which can mean a lot in staying competitive playoff position entering the midway point of the season.

But for the Blackhawks, who are certainly in “rebuild/retool” mode at second-to-last in the Central Division, this game had little more than symbolic significance. And despite having the lead in the game twice at 1-0 and 2-1, the Blackhawks were unable to hold on to the game, falling to 1-5 in outdoor appearances, still unable to record a win in a Winter Classic. 

A Must for All Fans

Every hockey fan should make a point of seeing a Winter Classic or Stadium Series game in person. Despite their lack of significance in the standings, the atmosphere created in outdoor events such as these is truly remarkable. Even though the Bruins lost in a borderline blowout to the Canadiens in 2016, the event itself was incredible, and even featured a full-on alumni game on New Year’s Eve the night before between Bruins and Canadiens legends. 

The main criticism of this event is that many NHL teams have yet to participate in an outdoor game. As mentioned before, the Blackhawks have played outside now six times while some teams are still waiting for their first shot at a Winter Classic or Stadium Series game.

Now it is understandable that market has a lot to do with how teams are selected. It would be a massive blow to the league to have empty seats for a game that is watched by so many fans around the world. That being said, the Nashville Predators are the best they have been likely in their 20-year existence, making it to the Stanley Cup Final in 2017 and coming two wins away from winning it all.

It feels as though new life has been breathed into the organization, which has been a perennial playoff contender for years, but was finally able to get over the hump and make a real run at a Stanley Cup.

Ice Anywhere

The league has proven with a Stadium Series in Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium, when the Kings hosted the Anaheim Ducks back on January 25, 2014, that making ice in warmer climates is possible. And it looks like the league is planning on trying their luck in a warmer climate once again as they announced during this year’s Winter Classic, that next year’s version of the event (held on January 1, 2020) will be hosted by the Dallas Stars at the Cotton Bowl, home to college football’s Cotton Bowl Classic.

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The Stars’ opponent for the event has not yet been announced, though there are rumors that it could be division opponent Minnesota, who has participated in just one outdoor game when the Wild hosted the Blackhawks at TCF Bank Stadium on February 21, 2016. With the noted history between the two clubs (the Minnesota North Stars moving to Dallas in 1993) the Wild feel like a natural opponent in this game.

There has been some resistance from fans to playing hockey in an outdoor location where snowy winters don’t occur, as the original premise of the game was to bring hockey “back to its roots” where it was played (outdoors) on frozen ponds in the winter. However, the new NHL has very successful markets now in areas of the United States where it hardly ever gets below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, never mind comes close to freezing any still body of water. For the league to exclude a team from a Winter Classic just because its city never experiences traditional cold, snowy winters is a flawed way of thinking to me.

Now that ice-making technology is at a point where suitable hockey conditions can be made and sustained in nearly any climate (there is some suggestion that outdoor games in warmer climates should be played at night when it is cooler out and there is no harsh sun to melt the ice) the door is now open for the league to expand its selection of outdoor games to nearly any market. And I personally think it would be an incredible idea to have a Stadium Series game in Florida between the Lightning and Panthers somewhere down the road.

Great for the Game

Regardless of the team your root for, putting hockey on the main stage in front of a national audience for at least one signature game a year is great for spreading the sport to a wider audience. I believe that all NHL teams will get to play in an outdoor game at some point as technology continues to progress and teams continue to grow their markets.

If your team hasn’t gotten the chance to participate yet (I hear you Columbus) then don’t worry, I believe the league is exploring all markets when determining location and feasibility for outdoor games.

And speaking to all hockey fans, when the opportunity arises to go to an outdoor game, jump at it. Even if your budget doesn’t allow for the Winter Classic itself, often times when the NHL comes to town for the event, college teams get on board as well, playing a game or two on the outdoor surface at a much more affordable price. The experience is incredible, the environment is electric, and there really is nothing else like playing hockey outdoors.

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