“This could be a breakthrough game for the sport of hockey. But it’s also a throwback game for the older people in the crowd. And it’s good for the young guys to experience playing outdoors. This was the best of everything. The crowd. The rink. The competition. The importance of the game. It had all the ingredients of a great game and it was.” -Red Berenson, October 6, 2001
Though the game of hockey was born outdoors, its rapid growth and expansion to warmer climates necessitated the creation of indoor facilities. And as the Pond Hockey documentary grimly remarks, many people who play the game today have never experienced the rush of outdoor play, instead spending hours driving to and standing around within the world’s plethora of indoor facilities. This group includes many players who make their living playing hockey. But a movement is afoot to bring the game back outside. It started with one tiny step in East Lansing, MI, in October 2001. Then the NHL tentatively took a stride in November 2003. A few more hesitant paces followed, the hockey community gaining confidence as the crowds showed, the players smiled, the advertisers inquired. In 2008, a breakthrough: the Winter Classic. A marketer’s dream and a hockey player’s playground. Three Classics later and the initial footsteps have given way to a stampede. Everyone wants to be a part of 2010-2011: THE YEAR OF THE OUTDOOR HOCKEY GAME.
Nobody has ever mistaken Red Berenson for Kreskin, the famous mentalist. But it cannot be argued that the game he was speaking of gave credence to the notion of playing hockey outdoors in front of huge crowds. His quote above came on the heels of a wildly exciting 3-3 tie between his Michigan Wolverines and their rival Michigan State Spartans. The game, dubbed “The Cold War,” featured current NHL stars Mike Cammalleri, Mike Komisarek, Adam Hall, Duncan Keith, and Ryan Miller, and was played in Michigan State’s Spartan Stadium, a venue normally reserved for football. Nearly 75,000 fans packed the house, making it the largest live audience for a hockey game in history at the time (see the video here). What Berenson knew then, and what we know now, is that those 75,000 people had witnessed a very important milestone.
It took two years for the NHL to experiment with its own large-scale outdoor event. On November 22, 2003, the Edmonton Oilers played the Montreal Canadiens in the 2003 Heritage Classic. The event took place at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium in front of 57,000 fans, and was the first-ever NHL regular season game to be played outdoors. Perhaps the most lasting memory of this game was not Richard Zednik’s two-goal performance, but of Hab goaltender Jose Theodore donning a knit toque atop his mask to combat the sub-zero temperatures. Toque sales exploded; the game took another step forward.
The NCAA followed three years later, showcasing a tilt between the University of Wisconsin Badgers and the Ohio State Buckeyes on the frozen tundra of Green Bay’s Lambeau Field in February 2006. The Badgers won 4-2, with Wisconsin players celebrating the victory with a post-game Lambeau Leap. Forty-one thousand fans saw the action live, and the NHL took notes. One step, two steps, three steps. Outdoor hockey was about to go on a run.
Just under two years after the Lambeau game, the NHL charged off the bench with an event that is looking like it will change the face of the hockey, not only at the professional ranks, but at the amateur, college, and semi-professional levels as well. That’s when the NHL held its first Winter Classic, an internationally-televised outdoor hockey game with enough pomp to rival the Super Bowl. With aspirations of becoming an annual New Year’s Day tradition, the first Classic saw the Penguins unveil their powder blues in a shootout win over the Sabres at Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium. The event was an instant classic, with a light snow falling over Ryan Miller (of Cold War fame) and a dancing Sidney Crosby as the final shootout goal dented the twine (video here). More than 71,000 people were there to witness it; millions more watched on TV.
Though the earlier outdoor games certainly provided the groundwork, the 2008 Classic crossed hockey boundaries and found itself comfortably nestled into the mainstream. The NHL had broken it wide open. People who wouldn’t normally watch a regular season hockey game were captivated. Surely the massive marketing campaign had something to do with it, as did the decision to televise the game when many New Year’s Eve partygoers were just beginning to nurse their morning-after headaches. But there was another factor at play: the juxtaposition between what kids in every cold-weather neighborhood have done for millennia and the immensely talented professional superstars. For three hours on New Year’s Day 2008, everyone who had ever skated on a pond, backyard rink, or neighborhood park had something in common with multimillionaire professionals.
Writers waxed nostalgic leading up to the event, but perhaps none more gracefully than Brian Falla, son of backyard rink patriarch Jack Falla and every bit the writer his father was. He sums it up perfectly in this NHL.com article:
My father’s voice sang out from the telephone receiver, which was strange given his aversion to phones.
We often joked that my father would probably reach for the garden hose before the phone if the house were ever to catch fire.
But this day was different and I was expecting the call.
“Are you watching this?” he asked.
It was New Year’s Day and the NHL Winter Classic 2008 was unfolding on TV, the Pittsburgh Penguins facing the Buffalo Sabres in snow-kissed Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Sidney Crosby was attempting to scoop the puck off the snow-covered ice and cradle it lacrosse-style between two defenders. That little bit of tom-foolery is what prompted my father to pick up the phone.
Having a skating rink in our backyard in Natick, Mass., for the past 25 years, we already knew all the tricks to playing in snow.
Immediately, we were talking hockey — specifically, outdoor hockey — and wondering aloud whether the pros would resort to the same tricks we often used in our outdoor rink: Pulling a guy’s stocking cap over his eyes in front of the net, or screening the goalie by shooting a pile of snow. We also wondered whether rink rules applied, meaning the losing team was going to be forced to shovel the ice at the end of the game.
I have no doubt that this conversation took place — in some way, shape, or form — in thousands of households that day. And after experimenting with outdoor games sparingly earlier in the decade, the hockey community had finally found a way to broadcast itself to a broader audience and elicit viewers’ purest frozen memories.
Now, with ultra-successful Winter Classics at Chicago’s Wrigley Field and Boston’s Fenway Park in 2009 and 2010, the NHL is gliding towards a 2010-2011 season that will see not one but two outdoor events. Joining the NHL are several other hockey leagues that will host outdoor games. Below is a listing of every high-level outdoor hockey event taking place in North America this year. After seeing only a handful of outdoor games in the last 10 years, this season promises to usher in a new age of hockey purity. 2010-2011 will indeed be THE YEAR OF THE OUTDOOR HOCKEY GAME, but it is my hope that each successive year rewrites the record. We may be regressing to a time when snow and rain affected the outcome of meaningful games, just as they did at the beginning of the 20th century. But we’re also awakening a hardwired part of our hockey souls, bringing hockey purists together, and helping usher in a new wave of fans to the game.
Event: 2011 Bridgestone Winter Classic
Location: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA
Date: January 1, 2011
Teams: Pittsburgh Penguins vs Washington Capitals
The NHL will showcase itself once again with the fourth annual Winter Classic, slated to take place at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on January 1, 2011. Those of you sick of the “Sid vs Ovie” hype may want to shut off the power to your home leading up to this event, but as much as the NHL does tends to over-promote the matchup, these franchise players are simply two of the most dynamic and marketable faces in the league. As such, it only makes sense to bring them to the forefront of the game and put them in as many homes as possible. And while the talented-but-dry Crosby has been on the outdoor stage before, spotlight-loving Ovechkin will surely relish his unique opportunity.
Event: 2011 Heritage Classic
Location: McMahon Field, Calgary, AB
Date: February 20, 2011
Teams: Calgary Flames vs Montreal Canadiens
After unsuccessfully lobbying the NHL to host a second outdoor game opposite Boston’s Winter Classic last season, Calgary was given the go-ahead from the league to host the second Heritage Classic this year. Played in the home stadium of the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders and the University of Calgary, the venue will add even more seats to its 35,650 just for the Heritage. The game will be the first outdoor game for Calgary and second for Montreal, who played Edmonton in the first Heritage Classic in 2003.
Event: The Big Chill at the Big House
Location: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, MI
Date: December 11, 2010
Teams: University of Michigan vs Michigan State University
Call it The Big Chill at the Big House, call it Cold War II, it doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that this game will destroy any and all currently standing hockey attendance records. Michigan Stadium, appropriately known as the Big House, has a seating capacity of 109,901. Think they couldn’t possibly find that many people willing to sit on frozen seats to watch an outdoor hockey game? You don’t know Michigan. More than 100,000 tickets were sold when the University stopped selling to the public back in May. The remaining tickets will be doled out to Michigan students this month. Even without those additional tickets, the current sales will surpass the current hockey attendance record, set at the Veltins-Arena in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, back in May. A crowd of 77,803 watched Germany upset the US in the first game of the 2010 IIHF World Championships. The Michigan game could see that record broken by nearly 40 percent. Could this mean more football stadium games for the NCAA? How about it, Minnesota?
Event: Whalers Hockey Fest
Location: Rentschler Field, East Hartford, CT
Date: February 13-20, 2011
Howard Baldwin, CEO of Whalers Sports & Entertainment, and the man who brought professional hockey to CT three decades ago, is at it again. Baldwin will be hosting a 10-day outdoor hockey festival called the Whalers Hockey Fest, with up to 20 games played on an outdoor surface at the University of Connecticut’s Rentschler Stadium. The rink, whose red line will sit atop the football field’s 50-yard line, and in full view of its 40,000 seats, will see action from teams at various levels of play. The newly-rebranded Connecticut Whale will face off against the Providence Bruins on February 19th in only the AHL’s second outdoor game. The NCAA will be represented by two games, with a UConn vs Sacred Heart men’s game followed by a UConn vs Providence College women’s game, both on February 13, 2011. There will also be dozens of local high school and youth games.
Event: Rockstar Outdoor Hockey Classic
Location: Avista Stadium, Spokane, WA
Date: January 15, 2011
Teams: Spokane Chiefs vs Kootenay Ice
In what will be the Western Hockey League’s first outdoor game, the Spokane Chiefs will welcome the Kootenay Ice to Avista Stadium, home field for the Class A Spokane Indians baseball team. Junior hockey has seen an increase in popularity in recent years (and was even included as part of EA Sports’ NHL ’11, released yesterday), so it only makes sense for at least one of the leagues to step outside.
Event: As Yet Unnamed
Location: McMahon Field, Calgary, AB
Date: February 21, 2011
Teams: Calgary Hitmen vs Regina Pats
If you miss your chance to attend the WHL’s first-ever outdoor game in Spokane, you’ll only have to wait about five weeks and drive 400 miles northeast to try again. A day after the NHL’s Heritage Classic, the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen will host the Regina Pats at McMahon Field. The event marks the second outdoor event in the WHL (although it was announced before the Spokane game), and the success of both events may open the door for more junior teams to experiment with outdoor games in the future.
Event: The Northern Classic
Location: MacDonald Island Park, Wood Buffalo, AB
Date: November 26, 2010
Teams: Fort McMurray Oil Barons vs Drayton Valley Thunder
In what feels like the space race between NASA and the Russians, the Alberta Junior Hockey League will host North America’s first outdoor hockey game on November 26th of this year. Strategically scheduled on the Friday of the CFL’s Grey Cup festivities, the Northern Classic expects to sell upwards of 5,000 tickets in an attempt to break the Alberty Junior Hockey League attendance record of 4,400.
So there it is. Seven major outdoor events, with rumors swirling of more forthcoming. Seven ways for you to get bundled up, get outside, and watch grown men (and women!) play the game the way their grandfathers did.
Was Red Berenson right? Was the first Cold War game a breakthrough for the game of hockey? Perhaps not right away. But it showed that outdoor games could work and that people are willing to sit outside en masse to watch our wonderful sport. It took a while for the NHL to catch on, but now that they have, it has opened the eyes of a number of other leagues. And that, my friends, is a great, great thing.
I’ll continue to update this list as more events are added. If you attend one of these games, I’d love to hear from you! Email me using the ‘Contact Us‘ page.