|National Hockey League|
|First played||January 1, 2008|
|Most wins||2: Washington Capitals, New York Rangers, and Boston Bruins|
|Most recent||January 1, 2020|
|Most recent winner||Dallas Stars|
The NHL Winter Classic (French: La Classique hivernale de la LNH) is an annual regular season outdoor ice hockey game played in the National Hockey League (NHL) on or around New Year's Day, generally in a football or baseball stadium in an area with a resident NHL team. The Winter Classic is distinct from the league's two other series of outdoor games, the NHL Heritage Classic and the NHL Stadium Series. The first Winter Classic was held in 2008 at Ralph Wilson Stadium (now Bills stadium) in Orchard Park, New York, between the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins. Twelve Winter Classics have been held as of January 2020. The most recent game was played during the 2019-20 NHL season at the Cotton Bowl, with the Dallas Stars defeating the Nashville Predators 4-2.
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, suspended 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.
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 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 the risk of a weather delay pushing the game 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, was reportedly 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.
In 2017, the Winter Classic was the second of two outdoor games to be held over the New Year's weekend, 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.
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 Rangers hosted the game but played as the visiting team. The arrangement gave the Sabres only 40 games for the 2017-18 season in their home city of Buffalo, while the Rangers played 42 games (not counting away games against the New York Islanders) in New York City. The NHL had used a similar policy for the Rangers in the 2014 Stadium Series and the 2011 NHL Premiere. The game was played on January 1, 2018.
On November 18, 2017, the NHL announced that the Chicago Blackhawks would host the Boston Bruins in the Winter Classic scheduled for January 1, 2019. The game was played at Notre Dame Stadium, in Notre Dame, Indiana, and was the first instance of a Winter Classic being played in a different state and media market than the host team—the stadium is located less than 100 mi (160 km) from Chicago but is served by television stations in South Bend.
The NHL announced on January 26, 2019, that the Dallas Stars would host the Nashville Predators in the 2020 Winter Classic at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas. It would be the first Winter Classic to take place at a warm-climate city and the first outdoor game for both the Predators and Stars. The Stars won the game 4-2 in front of 85,630 fans, the second largest attendance in an NHL game behind the 2014 Winter Classic.
The league originally announced on January 1, 2020, that the 2021 NHL Winter Classic would feature the Minnesota Wild at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The league later confirmed the St. Louis Blues as the opponent. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic delaying the conclusion of the 2019-20 season to September and postponing the start of the following season, the event was moved to 2022 at its earliest.
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, Husky 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 Bills Stadium), 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 Boston, 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.
Any future games in New York City will have to have the Rangers play as the away team because their home area Madison Square Garden receives tax-exemption status which means the Rangers "must not cease playing any home games at MSG" which is interpreted as playing a home game outside of MSG.
|Year||Venue||Sport of venue||Location||Visiting team||Home team||Score||Attendance|
|2008||Ralph Wilson Stadium||Football||Orchard Park, NY||Pittsburgh Penguins||Buffalo Sabres||2-1 (SO)||71,217|
|2009||Wrigley Field||Baseball||Chicago, IL||Detroit Red Wings||Chicago Blackhawks||6-4||40,818|
|2010||Fenway Park||Baseball||Boston, MA||Philadelphia Flyers||Boston Bruins||1-2 (OT)||38,112|
|2011||Heinz Field||Football||Pittsburgh, PA||Washington Capitals||Pittsburgh Penguins||3-1||68,111|
|2012||Citizens Bank Park||Baseball||Philadelphia, PA||New York Rangers||Philadelphia Flyers||3-2||46,967|
|2013||Michigan Stadium||College football||Ann Arbor, MI||Toronto Maple Leafs||Detroit Red Wings||Postponed to January 2014 due to lockout|
|2014||Michigan Stadium||College football||Ann Arbor, MI||Toronto Maple Leafs||Detroit Red Wings||3-2 (SO)||105,491|
|2015||Nationals Park||Baseball||Washington, D.C.||Chicago Blackhawks||Washington Capitals||2-3||42,832|
|2016||Gillette Stadium||Football||Foxborough, MA||Montreal Canadiens||Boston Bruins||5-1||67,246|
|2017||Busch Stadium||Baseball||St. Louis, MO||Chicago Blackhawks||St. Louis Blues||1-4||46,556|
|2018||Citi Field||Baseball||Queens, NY||New York Rangers||Buffalo Sabres||3-2 (OT)||41,821|
|2019||Notre Dame Stadium||College football||Notre Dame, IN||Boston Bruins||Chicago Blackhawks||4-2||76,126|
|2020||Cotton Bowl||College football||Dallas, TX||Nashville Predators||Dallas Stars||2-4||85,630|
|2021||Target Field||Baseball||Minneapolis, MN||St. Louis Blues||Minnesota Wild||Postponed to January 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic|
|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|
For the Winter Classic, participating teams typically wear throwback, or retro-style sweaters, and occasionally retro-styled equipment. The throwback sweaters are 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.
The 2014 Winter Classic between the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs had a television viewership in the U.S. and Canada of 8.2 million television viewers, a North American record for a regular season game; in addition to setting an NHL-record paid attendance of 105,491. 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.
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. Nevertheless, the Winter Classic continues to air on Canadian television, but since 2016 the games are moved to Sportsnet. In addition, Sportsnet elected to simulcast NBC's feed of the Winter Classic as opposed to sending their own broadcast crews, except when a Canadian team is involved (as was the case in the 2016 Winter Classic featuring the Canadiens).
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 one-year bumps in 2014 and 2019, has been in a mostly steady decline since then.
In 2010, the NHL and HBO announced a four-part documentary series as part of the build-up to the 2011 Winter Classic. The series, entitled 24/7: Road to the NHL Winter Classic, gave HBO exclusive access to the teams that were participating in the game. HBO went on to air two more editions in 2012 and 2014.
For the 2015, 2016 and 2017 Winter Classics, the NHL partnered with Epix to air another series of four-part documentaries. The first two editions carried the Road to the NHL Winter Classic brand, but the 2017 edition was retitled Road to the NHL Outdoor Classics with the inclusion of the NHL Centennial Classic as part of the buildup.
Starting with the 2018 Winter Classic, the NHL opted to distribute the Road to the NHL Winter Classic series to its broadcast partners. In addition, each episode was made available on NHL.com and the league's social media pages.
All episodes of the series are produced by Ross Greenburg in conjunction with the NHL.
Its popularity in the United States led to the American Hockey League adopting a similar contest in 2010, the AHL Outdoor Classic, which it continued to organize each season through 2017-18. 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. The Winter Classic also led to the revival of the Heritage Classic, an outdoor game featuring only Canadian NHL teams; and the creation of the NHL Stadium Series, another regular season event held at an outdoor venue.
Media related to NHL Winter Classic at Wikimedia Commons