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The NHL Winter Classic is one of the premier events in the National Hockey League. Let's take a look at this annual tradition and examine why the NHL decided to host games outside in the dead of winter.

This annual event is held around New Year’s Day and is usually played at an outdoor baseball or football stadium, drawing a massive crowd. 

It’s not an All-Star exhibition or a postseason game. It's a matchup that counts in the standings during the regular season. So even though it is a rare and special event, the game still means a lot to the fans and the players, especially if one of the teams is fighting for a playoff spot.

The 2020 NHL Winter Classic is January 1st at 12:30 PM CST at the Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas, Texas. The Dallas Stars will host the Nashville Predators for the 12th annual NHL Winter Classic match up.   

History of the Classic 

The NHL Winter Classic is a relatively new tradition as far as sports are concerned. We have NBC’s Sports Executive VP, Jon Miller, to thank for curating this hockey tradition. This idea was originally presented in 2004, “but they didn't find the concept workable.” But fast-forward a few years, and in 2008 the inaugural event took place and was a smashing success with over 71 thousand fans in attendance. 

The very first winter classic was held January 1st, 2008, at the Ralph Wilson Stadium (New Era Field) in Orchard Park, New York. The very first Winter Classic game ended in stunning fashion, with the Pittsburgh Penguins defeating the Buffalo Sabres, 2–1, in a shootout.

After the success of the first NHL Winter Classic, the league immediately scheduled and planned for the second one to happen on January 1st, 2009, at Wrigley Field in Chicago (home to the Chicago Cubs) where rivals Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings took the ice.

The devoted cold-weather fans and the competitive rivalry between the two Midwest squads led to the 2009 NHL Winter Classic breaking the television record for the highest rating of any hockey game in the past 33 years. 

This lead to other stand-out stadiums throughout the nation wanting to host and break those TV records. Other NHL Winter Classics have been held at Fenway Park in Boston, Lincoln Financial Park in Philadelphia, Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Busch Stadium in St. Louis and more. 

The Winter Classic has been played every year since 2008, with the exception of 2013 when the game was cancelled due to the NHL lockout.

A list off all Winter Classic Games
Table and data via Wikipedia.

Why is the NHL Classic Played Outside? 

Some fans may be confused as to why the Classic is played outside, with the threat of weather in the dead of winter or a sunny day glare off of the ice, potentially causing an unfair advantage to one team. But the children have played hockey on frozen ponds and lakes forever and the NHL has been playing games outside since 1954. 

Games are played outside as a celebratory event, and the NHL Classic helps kick off the new year. The NHL has hosted at least one game a year outside since 2008 and in true hockey form, the fans are not phased by the weather and always draw in a massive crowd. 

However, the NHL can not control Mother Nature and In 2011 and 2012, both games were delayed due to weather, which delayed the start 2 to 3 hours later than originally scheduled. 

On the sunnier days that the game falls under, the glare from the sun can be an unfair advantage for one team. In this case, the game is stopped at the halfway point and both teams switch sides, making it so both teams have to face against the glare. This unfortunately occurred in 2008, 2011, 2014, and 2018.   

Winter Classic Stats

The Winter Classic is part of the regular NHL schedule. Games are scheduled out already to 2021 as part of the league’s television contract. 

The Classic is claimed to be the most-watched season NHL game. Breaking record numbers through the years having its peak year in 2011 with 4.50 million viewers

After that, the numbers decreased rapidly with a total of 2.48 million viewers in 2018 but rebounded back this year at 2.97 million viewers.

In 2014, the Detroit Red Wings played the Toronto Maple Leafs in one of the most memorable NHL Winter Classic games ever. The game was originally scheduled to happen in 2013, but due to the Hockey Lockout, it was pushed back to 2014.  

This Canada and U.S. matchup led to a sellout game with over 105,000 spectators in at the Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. 

The 2014 NHL Winter Classic had 8.2 million viewers between the U.S. and Canada. With a tight game, Toronto came out on top 3-2 in a shootout. 

In the previous years, there have been great turnouts in gameplay with over half of the games being within one goal as the final score, including 4 overtimes and 2 shootouts

Reporters claim viewership dropped off immensely depending on which teams were playing. Some teams bring in a bigger fanbase than others. In previous years the matchups were more intense because of potential rivals playing each other, but that rivalry is never guaranteed. 

Now, due to the popularity of the event, each team has requested to be a part of the classic making it hard for the directors to schedule interesting matchups. 

Throwback Jersey Tradition

One of the biggest traditions for the Classic is that the teams who are playing wear old school throwback jerseys. 

Having throwback jerseys increases apparel sales for each team and the fans love to participate. This is a great way for the teams to get the crowd energized and nostalgic and not think about the below-freezing temperatures on January 1st. 

Impact From the Classic  

The NHL Winter Classic has become an annual event fans across the nation look forward to watching. Sports Illustrated columnist Dan Shaughnessy said, "Now hockey owns New Year's Day the way baseball owns the Fourth of July and football owns Thanksgiving."

Its popularity in the United States has led to the American Hockey League creating a similar event in 2010, the AHL Outdoor Classic, which has also be a continued tradition every year since its inception.

The NHL Winter Classic helped hockey gain popularity at the collegiate level as well. Now, several college organizations, minor and junior hockey leagues hold outdoor games too.


Over the years, the NHL Winter Classic event has brought an uprising to hockey and what it has to offer. 

With more years to come, the Classic will uphold its tradition and continue to bring the Hockey community together as it has impacted a sea of people. 

If you have never watched an NHL classic, make sure to tune in on January 1st in 2020. 

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Posted 
Dec 27, 2019
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