NHL Winter Classic
|National Hockey League|
|First played||January 1, 2008|
|Most wins||2: Washington Capitals (2011, 2015) and New York Rangers (2012, 2018)|
|Most recent||January 1, 2018|
|Most recent winner||New York Rangers|
The NHL Winter Classic is one of the three series of regular season outdoor games played in the National Hockey League (NHL), and is distinct from the league's other two series, the NHL Heritage Classic and the NHL Stadium Series. The Winter Classic is annually held on or around New Year's Day, generally in a football or baseball stadium, in an area with a resident NHL team. The first Winter Classic was held in 2008 at the venue then known as Ralph Wilson Stadium (now New Era Field) in Orchard Park, New York, between the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins. A total of ten have been held. The most recent game was played during 2017–18 season at Citi Field, in Queens, New York on January 1, 2018 between the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres. The Rangers won 3-2 in overtime.
After the success of the Cold War at Michigan State University in 2001 and the 2003 Heritage Classic, the NHL's first regular season outdoor game, the league inaugurated the Winter Classic in 2008. It eventually caught on as an annual tradition for the league, suspending only in 2013 due to 2012–13 NHL lockout. The 2014 game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings set a new NHL attendance record of 105,491. The Winter Classic has been contested only in the United States, while the Heritage Classic has been held exclusively in Canada. The Winter Classic featured only American teams for its first five games, until the Maple Leafs' appearance in 2014.
Along with the NHL All-Star Game, the Winter Classic is considered one of the NHL's premier events; with matchups generally booked to showcase the league's most popular teams and players, the event garners the league its highest attendance and among its highest television ratings. The event is typically promoted as a return to the sport's outdoor roots, meant to evoke memories of pond hockey. Its popularity has led to the scheduling of additional outdoor hockey games, both in the NHL and other leagues worldwide. In May 2014, the SportsBusiness Journal and SportsBusiness Daily named the Winter Classic its "Sports Event of the Year," the second time in five years the Classic has won that distinction.
The Winter Classic as a television event was presented by NBC Sports Executive VP Jon Miller. He pitched the idea to the NHL in 2004 "but they didn't find the concept workable." In December 2006, Miller found an ally in then Executive VP/Business & Media John Collins, who embraced the idea. The first Winter Classic was held January 1, 2008, between the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, New York. The game had a then-NHL-record crowd of 71,217 fans in attendance. The success of the 2008 NHL Winter Classic led the NHL to schedule a second one for 2009, held at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois, on January 1, 2009, matching the Detroit Red Wings against the Chicago Blackhawks. That game had the highest American television ratings of any hockey game in 33 years.
The third Winter Classic was held at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 1, 2010, featuring the Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers. The result was a 2–1 overtime win for Boston, the first home team to win a Winter Classic. The 2011 game was played at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals with Washington winning 3–1.
Weather has proven to affect the game, with the 2011 and 2012 classics being delayed due to rain and other weather. Outdoor effects of wind and sun glare may give an unfair advantage to one team, so the NHL sometimes modifies the third and overtime periods. In this case, play is stopped at the midway point and teams switch directions. This option was exercised in 2008, 2011, 2014 and 2018. The 2008, 2014 and 2018 games also featured the teams switching ends halfway through the five-minute sudden-death overtime period for the same reason. In the 2008 and 2014 the games went into a shootout, where both goaltenders alternated defending the same goal, rather than the normal practice of defending opposite goals.
The Winter Classic was made a part of the NHL schedule through at least January 1, 2021, as part of the league's television contract, initially with NBC and Versus, then just NBC after Comcast (the parent company of Versus) bought NBC and merged Versus into the NBC Sports banner.
The 2012 Winter Classic in Philadelphia was not played on New Year's Day, as that fell on a Sunday in 2012 and conflicted with the NFL's final week of regular season games. Instead, following precedent set by college football's bowl games (which move their games to Monday when January 1 lands on Sunday), and to prevent a weather delay from pushing into the timeslot for NBC Sunday Night Football, the game took place on January 2, 2012. The game was played at Citizens Bank Park, home of the Philadelphia Phillies. Neighboring Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Philadelphia Eagles, reportedly was preferred, but as the Eagles hosted a home game on January 1, the NHL could not undertake the required week-long renovations needed to construct the outdoor playing arena. The New York Rangers defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 3–2.
The sixth Winter Classic was scheduled for Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor in 2013, with the Detroit Red Wings hosting the Toronto Maple Leafs in an Original Six matchup. However, the 2012–13 NHL lockout disrupted the season, leading to the game's cancellation on November 2, 2012. The matchup was rescheduled for the 2014 Winter Classic, at the same venue with the same participants. It was the first time a Canadian team participated in the Winter Classic. An NHL-record total of 105,491 tickets were sold, greater than the Guinness World Records-certified world-record attendance of 104,173 at The Big Chill at the Big House, also held at Michigan Stadium. However, on January 24, 2014, an NHL source reported that the certified attendance, based on tickets scanned at the venue, fell short of the world record.
The seventh Winter Classic was announced on September 21, 2013 when Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis announced the 2015 Winter Classic would be hosted by his franchise. On June 22, 2014, the NHL announced the Capitals would play the Chicago Blackhawks. On September 10, 2014, the NHL announced the game would be played at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C.
The eighth Winter Classic was announced on January 24, 2015 at an All Star Game press conference when the NHL announced that the Winter Classic would return to Massachusetts, with the Boston Bruins hosting the Montreal Canadiens at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. On January 1, 2016, the Montreal Canadiens won the 2016 Winter Classic by defeating the Boston Bruins 5–1. The Montreal Canadiens were welcomed with the return of Brendan Gallagher, who had missed 17 games due to broken fingers that required surgery, and managed a goal and an assist, earning him the first star of the game.
The ninth Winter Classic was announced on March 9, 2016 when the NHL announced that the Winter Classic would come to Missouri, with the St. Louis Blues hosting the Chicago Blackhawks at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. The Winter Classic was the second of two outdoor games to be held over the New Year's weekend in 2017, with the NHL Centennial Classic being held in Toronto on January 1 and the Winter Classic following on January 2. The St. Louis Blues defeated the Chicago Blackhawks by the score of 4–1, scoring 3 goals in the third period. The Chicago Blackhawks are the only team to lose 3 times in the Winter Classic.
To celebrate the tenth anniversary of the first Winter Classic, the NHL announced on May 10, 2017 that the Buffalo Sabres would take part in the 2018 game against the New York Rangers at Citi Field. Due to a 1982 agreement with New York City and state tax laws that give their home arena Madison Square Garden tax-exempt status, the Rangers must not "cease playing" home games at MSG (which is generally interpreted as meaning playing a home game at any other venue), and thus a legal fiction was constructed so that the Rangers host the game as the away team. The arrangement gives the Sabres only 40 games for the 2017–18 season in their home city of Buffalo, while the Rangers receive 42 games (not counting away games against the New York Islanders) in New York City. Similar legal fictions had been employed for the Rangers in the 2014 Stadium Series and the 2011 NHL Premiere. The game will be played on January 1, 2018.
On November 18, 2017, the NHL announced that the Chicago Blackhawks would take part in a fourth Winter Classic as they will host the Boston Bruins on January 1, 2019. It will be the Bruins third participation to the event. The game will be played at Notre Dame Stadium, Indiana, marking the first time that the game is not played in the same state or media market the host team (the stadium is located less than 100 miles from Chicago but is served by television stations in South Bend instead of Chicago).
List of NHL Winter Classics
|New York Rangers||2||2018||2||0|
|Detroit Red Wings||2||2014||1||1|
|St. Louis Blues||1||2017||1||0|
|Toronto Maple Leafs||1||2014||1||0|
Participating teams have worn throwback or retro-style sweaters.
- Pittsburgh Penguins: 1970–71
- Buffalo Sabres: 1970–71
- Detroit Red Wings: 1926–27 Detroit Cougars
- Chicago Blackhawks: 1935–36 design with 1948–49 logo
- Washington Capitals: 1974–75
- Pittsburgh Penguins: 1967–68 sweater with colors reversed and crest logo instead of diagonal "Pittsburgh" lettering that appeared on original jerseys.
- New York Rangers: Traditional sweater design in off-white with straight-lined player names and blue numbers with red trim in felt rather than drop-shadow tackle twill. Striping on shoulders, arms and tail is a variation of the ones they currently use, and crest logo a modern variation of the logo used for the team's inaugural season in 1926.
- Philadelphia Flyers: Traditional sweater design in orange with black numbers and off-white trim. Striping on shoulders, arms and tail is different from the current sweaters. The stripe design was inspired by a sock design the team wore in the 1980s. This design would be used as an alternate uniform in 2014.
- Toronto Maple Leafs: Toronto's uniforms were royal blue and white and featured the distinct striping configuration inspired by the 1930s Maple Leafs. The front crest of the jersey featured a distinct wordmark from the inaugural Maple Leafs' logo, revealed in 1927. The neckline design is taken from the sweaters worn by the Leafs throughout the 1960s and the running stitch detail on the numbers is a tribute to the Leafs' sweater from the mid-1950s.
- Detroit Red Wings: Detroit wore red and antique white uniforms featuring a striping pattern and arch Detroit wordmark inspired by the late-1920s Detroit Cougars. The front crest on the jersey featured an early iteration of the winged wheel from the late 1930s Red Wings.
- Chicago Blackhawks: Chicago's jerseys were based on their 1957 jerseys, white with red and black stripping on the bottom, lace-up collars and the tomahawk logo near the elbows.
- Washington Capitals: While the Capitals' uniforms were not technically "throwbacks" because they represented a new uniform not previously worn by the team, they were a combined look back at hockey in D.C. Washington wore red sweaters (in a darker shade of red than the team's normal uniforms) with white stripes atop the shoulders and along the bottom, the front featuring the team's name in white over a large blue 'W', with the center of the 'W' stylized like the Washington Monument.
- Montreal Canadiens: Montreal's jerseys were based on the one they wore for the 1924-1925 season. Having won the Stanley Cup the precedent season, the first in the team's history as a member of the NHL, the team put a globe with the word "Champions" under it. Since 1922, the team was using their classic CH logo with inverted colors (the C in white and the H in red): that logo was moved on both arms for the 1924-1925 season. For the Winter Classic, the CH logo was put back as the team's crest while the globe moved on the arms. As for the jersey's colors, they traded place from the original version, the red becoming white and the white becoming red, similar to a jersey worn by the team between 1944 and 1947.
- Boston Bruins: Boston also used a jersey based on the one they wore for the 1924-1925 season, their first in the NHL. The jersey is identical to the one used that season, except for the fact that it is black instead of brown as it originally was.
- Chicago Blackhawks: The jerseys from the 2015 Winter Classic returned for 2017. Chicago's jerseys were based on their 1957 jerseys, white with red and black stripping on the bottom, lace-up collars and the tomahawk logo near the elbows.
- St. Louis Blues: St. Louis' uniforms were based on the inaugural 1967-68 home jersey. The jerseys feature historically-accurate fonts and team striping, a ribbed crewneck collar, the vintage blue color and the original Blue Note crest from the first season.
- Buffalo Sabres: 1970s design and colors, with no gold trim on numbers and a small "NY" initial at the bottom of the logo. The "Buffalo" wordmark from the Buffalo Bisons-inspired throwbacks from 2010 is included on the helmet, and a new shoulder crest (a buffalo filled with the word "Sabres") was added.
The throwback sweaters are very popular with fans, and teams have often continued to wear them after the Winter Classic. The Penguins and Blackhawks made their Winter Classic sweaters their alternates the following season. The Flyers went a step further and made their 2010 Winter Classic sweaters their permanent road sweaters, beginning with 2010–11. The Sabres had already been using a variation of their throwback sweater prior to their appearance (that particular season, there were no third sweaters anywhere in the league) and adopted a slightly updated version of the sweaters as their main uniform in 2010–11, while the 2011 contestants, the Penguins and Capitals, wore their classic uniforms as third jerseys in 2011–12. The Capitals continued to do so through the 2014–15 season, the same year the Flyers adopted their 2012 Winter Classic sweaters as their third jerseys.
The Winter Classic has proven to be a ratings success for the league in the United States and is regularly the league's most watched regular season contest (in the US), rivaling the ratings for the Stanley Cup. Its popularity in the United States led to the American Hockey League adopting a similar contest in 2010, the AHL Outdoor Classic, which it has reprised each year since. Both the Winter Classic and the earlier Cold War contest helped repopularize outdoor hockey at the college and university level, and several college organizations, minor and junior hockey leagues hold outdoor games each year.
Despite the overwhelming popularity of the original Heritage Classic between the Montreal Canadiens and the Edmonton Oilers in 2003, the popularity of the Winter Classic in Canada is not as high as it is in the United States. On Canada's CBC Television network, the Winter Classic has lower ratings than its weekly regular season telecasts Hockey Night in Canada. This has been attributed to the lack of Canadian teams in any of the Winter Classics and has led to both the revival of the all-Canadian Heritage Classic and the scheduling of the Maple Leafs in the 2014 Winter Classic and the Canadiens in the 2016 edition.
The 2014 Winter Classic between the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs had an NHL-record paid attendance of 105,491, and a television viewership in the U.S. and Canada of 8.2 million television viewers, a North American record for a regular season game. Sportsnet's Chris Johnston said, "The feeling when the players walked into the 87-year-old stadium in front of more than 100,000 fans was truly something special. The biggest and best Winter Classic of them all lived up to its advanced billing." The game went down to the wire, ending in a 3-2 Toronto victory in a shootout.
TV Ratings in the U.S.
The Winter Classic games usually rank among the most watched regular season NHL games on NBC reacquiring the rights to the NHL in 2005. Early entries in the Winter Classic ranked among the highest ratings for professional hockey in the United States since the 1970s, prior to that, the highest rating for an NHL game since then had been Wayne Gretzky's final game, which aired on Fox in 1999. Winter Classic viewership peaked in 2011 and, with the exception of a bump in 2014, has been in persistent decline since then.
Due to the popularity of the event, every NHL team has requested to participate in the Winter Classic either as the host or the visiting team. Numerous locations have been mentioned in the media as potential sites for future Winter Classics or entries in the NHL Stadium Series, including Michie Stadium, FedExField, Ohio Stadium, motorsports venues such as the currently under construction Canadian Motor Speedway in Fort Erie, Ontario, and even non-sports venues like the National Mall or Central Park. New Sabres and Buffalo Bills owner Terrence Pegula and commissioner Gary Bettman have discussed the possibility of hosting a second Winter Classic at Ralph Wilson Stadium (since renamed New Era Field), possibly to coincide with the 2018 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships, which will include one outdoor game. Former Toronto Maple Leafs President Tim Leiweke expressed his desire to host the 2018 game at a renovated BMO Field to mark the Leafs' centennial (he eventually got the Centennial Classic instead).
Any future additional Winter Classic games in Pittsburgh would have to be held at PNC Park due to scheduling logistics with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who for the 2011 game requested to the NFL to play Week 16 on Thursday night and Week 17 on the road in order to give the NHL time to get Heinz Field ready for the game. (Indeed, work started immediately after the Steelers finished their Thursday night game against the Carolina Panthers, as NFL players were still coming off the field when work started on converting the field.) Both PNC Park and Heinz Field would be available, however, for a Stadium Series game (Heinz Field eventually hosted the 2017 Stadium Series game). Another possibility for the Penguins, Flyers or Sabres (Pegula is a prominent Penn State alumnus who has hosted an annual exhibition game at Penn State's indoor hockey arena since 2016) would be Beaver Stadium on the campus of Penn State University, located between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
Harvard University and the Boston Bruins have explored the possibility of asking the NHL to schedule the 2024 Winter Classic at Harvard Stadium in Cambridge, Massachusetts to coincide with the Boston franchise's 100th anniversary year. If awarded the 2024 Winter Classic, the Bruins are expected to ask the NHL to again have the Montreal Canadiens as the opposition.
The 2019 Winter Classic will be held at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana, with the Chicago Blackhawks as host team, playing against the Boston Bruins. Sites for Winter Classic games after 2019 have yet to be determined.
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