For almost as long as I can remember, I have been transfixed by the National Hockey League.
It wasn’t so much a choice as a rite of passage. See, my father, who, like me, was born in Philadelphia, would spin yarns about the Broad Street Bullies-era Philadelphia Flyers, glorifying both the blue collar charm and the undeniably gruesome style of the two-time Stanley Cup champions. Like many of his friends, he had season tickets for nearly a decade early on – witnessing some the franchise’s best moments – and he immediately wanted to instill his excitement into his impressionable youngster.
I loved the speed, I loved the intensity and I especially loved the goaltender helmets – but I was often perplexed as to why the games were always just indoors. It was a sport intended to be played outdoors, with a history rooted deep in ponds and backyard rinks throughout the northern most part of the United States and much of Canada, so the idea quickly became the quintessential dream for me as a young fan. But the NHL had tried it and while, like five-year-old me, many might not remember, the first-ever outdoor game was held at Caeser’s Palace in Las Vegas on Sept. 27, 1991.
Touted as a preseason exhibition game, the Wayne Gretzky-led Los Angeles Kings hosted the New York Rangers in the casino’s parking lot on a comfortable 80-something degree night in front of just over 13,000 fans. It wasn’t the only one slated for that year, however. A second game, a rematch of sorts, was planned for just days after at the Charlotte Coliseum in North Carolina but was scrapped because of unsafe ice conditions. The rematch was never rescheduled and no further outdoor games were announced in the following seasons. Just like that, the idea seemed to vanish into NHL history books.
Fast forward more than a decade, to 2003, when the league announced the first-ever regular season outdoor tilt, between the Edmonton Oilers and the Montreal Canadiens. Dubbed the Heritage Classic, the game took place at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium – home of the Canadian Football League’s Edmonton Eskimos – and featured unique jerseys and entertainment, in the hopes of making it a truly special, once-in-a-lifetime kind of event. But why did it take the league almost 12 years to give this idea another opportunity? Well, it’s believed that the Heritage Classic stemmed from what was nicknamed the “Cold War” outdoor game in 2001, when the University of Michigan and rival Michigan State University skated to a 3-3 tie in front of nearly 75,000 people outside at MSU’s Spartan Stadium.
While the Heritage Classic was met with significant success, the league fumbled over itself when it came to building upon the idea, as the thought of doing it again and continuing to grow it was placed on the backburner – that is until New Years Day, 2008. It was then that North America got its first glimpse at what has now become the mold for the Winter Classic. Held at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, it featured the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Buffalo Sabres – and even some snow flurries when the game entered overtime. It really couldn’t have ended any better for the NHL, as the young face of the league, Sidney Crosby, dramatically netted the shootout-winning goal in front of more than 71,000 fans.
That first Winter Classic was perfect, a dream come true for not just the fans but also the players. Nestled right around the college football bowl games, it was a majestic two hours that left me reliving my street hockey days with my fellow die-hard friends. It was obvious that the NHL spared no expense on the event, airing it on NBC and including little things to enhance the viewer experience. The league knew it had something special on its hands and all it had to do was make sure it didn’t screw it up.
I was completely in awe of that contest in Buffalo and knew I had to see it for myself if it ever happened again – and then, just like that, the league announced a sequel the following year at Wrigley Field. One of baseball’s last few remaining churches, the home of the Chicago Cubs offered an unbelievably nostalgic and historic backdrop for the NHL’s new concoction and, mix in the fact that it featured one of the league’s best rivalries – the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings – there was no way it wouldn’t be infinitely bigger than the year prior. I knew I couldn’t watch it on TV this time around – I had to be there in person. So, I bought four tickets at $250 apiece as Christmas presents for three of my best friends. It was well worth it, a bucket list item that I will certainly never forget. That game was the one – and still only – time I got to experience Wrigley Field and I still joke to people that the only time I was ever in “The Friendly Confines” was for a hockey game, certainly quite the rarity.
The game moved to another baseball church, Fenway Park, the following year and featured the team my father had introduced me to almost two decades prior. Once again, the game was a success and achieved monster ratings, becoming appointment television and one of the league’s most watched games of the regular season. Two years later, after a Winter Classic in Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, Philadelphia would host the event at Citizens Bank Park – the home of the Philadelphia Phillies – between the hometown Flyers and the New York Rangers. Once again I went but this time it wasn’t quite the same. The action on the ice was intense and it was a great experience and it even flurried – but something just felt a little different. This time around, the Winter Classic didn’t quite hold the same gravitas – maybe it lacked the history, maybe it lacked the uniqueness or maybe it lacked the atmosphere of being smack dab in the middle of the downtown area. After a lockout-shortened season in 2012-2013, the NHL moved that year’s Winter Classic to the following season, while also adding several other outdoor games to the docket. That, my friends, is when the league began to destroy something great.
Up to that point, the formula for outdoor games – the Winter Classic, to be specific – was simple. Once a year, outside in a unique baseball or football venue, host two teams that are on the rise or rivals with a full-on live experience that includes flyovers, fan interaction and world-class musicians. It gave the fans and players something special to look forward to in the middle of the season and, rather than turn it into a cash-grab or a gimmick, it would happen just once a year, in the hopes of keeping it fresh and exciting.
For the 2013-2014 campaign, the NHL announced three outdoor games, called the Stadium Series, in addition to the Winter Classic between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings at Michigan Stadium. Dodger Stadium, Yankee Stadium and Soldier Field were all selected for these contests – all of which were the perfect spots for an outdoor game, but not all at once! If the league gave it a chance to breathe and eventually held an outdoor contest at each of the venues over several years and stuck with the once a year model, it would’ve been great – but, just like that, the league watered down the product. Oh, I forgot to mention that there was a Heritage Classic in Vancouver that season as well.
Over the next three seasons, there were nine outdoor games, each one less memorable than the last.
Sure, the league would sometimes pick iconic venues – like Busch Stadium in 2017 – but there was a lot less attention focused on the games given their frequency and many just came and went. Plus, the Stadium Series games are often on a random Saturday evening in February or March. I have a tough time remembering the matchups of the most recent events, while I can still tell you almost every single detail of those first three Winter Classics. What has also managed to happen is repetition. Given their ability to draw ratings, teams like the Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers are involved seemingly every year. Need I remind you, NHL, there are 31 teams. Would it be too much to ask to see smaller market teams like the Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators or Tampa Bay Lightning?
This year, the NHL has dialed it back a little, with just two games on the docket – the Winter Classic at Citi Field in New York and a Stadium Series contest at Navy-Marine Corp Memorial Stadium in Annapolis. I’m not going to lie, the tie-in with our military for the latter game is going to be awesome! But that might not be enough, because people are tired of it – the concept has become old after forcing it. Get rid of the Stadium Series altogether and go back to how it was in the beginning and what made it popular. At its core, professional hockey outdoors will always be enticing but it’s all about how the NHL presents the concept that’ll determine whether or not it will continue to be successful.
Cover photo by Getty Images
Ed is the co-founder of Dirtfork and a native Philadelphian who has freelanced for a number of print and web-based outlets during his career, including seven years with CraveOnline. When he’s not interviewing J.J. Watt and riding in an IndyCar with Mario Andretti, Ed enjoys spouting off obscure movie quotes, devouring a great plate of Mexican food and going on adventures with his wife and adopted dog.