It’s Time for the Winter Classic to Change

A Photo of Michigan Stadium, home of the Michigan Wolverines College Football team, playing host to the the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo Credit: Moss Sports)

A Photo of Michigan Stadium, home of the Michigan Wolverines College Football team, playing host to the the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo Credit: Moss Sports)

Writer’s Twitter: @ChrisMottHockey

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This Article was written and includes the opinions of the writer. They do not represent the Devils Army Blog’s point of view as a whole.

The NHL Winter Classic is one of the greatest traditions the NHL has made. Every year, hockey fans are all eager to see the game, which is typically played on New Year’s Day, and then eager to find out who the next contestants will be the following year and which venue will be used for the event.

Then, of course, there are the typically beautiful looking uniforms and jerseys designed for the event. It has even encouraged the NHL to have more events like it, such as the Stadium Series or Heritage Classic games. That said, we are coming up on the 11th Winter Classic and at this point, while it is an awesome event, the Winter Classic must change. To understand how and why it must change, we need to enrich ourselves in its history.

The First Winter Classic between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres in New York. (Photo Credit: NHL.com)

The First Winter Classic between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres in New York. (Photo Credit: NHL.com)

The History of the Winter Classic

The first Winter Classic was played on Jan. 1, 2008, between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres at Ralph Wilson Stadium (Home of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills) in Orchard Park, New York. And it was a success in every way between fans, the players, and the league.

This was not the first outdoor game, though, as there were previous contests that were held outdoor before dating back to the 1950s when the Red Wings represented the NHL in an outdoor game. After that, there was the infamous preseason game between the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers on September 27, 1991, in Las Vegas, Nevada at Caesars Palace, where the temperatures were around 80 degrees when the game started. There was also the first regular-season outdoor game in the NHL between the Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens in Nov. 2003. The Winter Classic was a tremendous idea, but it had its roots to draw from to develop and build the experience.

Since then, there has been a Winter Classic every year between two NHL teams, with the contest always taking place at iconic venues on or around New Year’s Day. The Winter Classic has been such a success that the league has spawned more events akin to it, such as the Stadium Series and bringing back the Heritage Classic, which features two Canadian teams playing against each other in an outdoor game.

The Heritage Classic has taken place in 2003, 2011, 2014, and 2016, while the Stadium Series has featured three outdoor games in 2014, one in 2015, two in 2016, one in 2017, 2018, and one coming up in 2019. There is no shortage of outdoor games and the games do not feel overly saturated to where they no longer feel special.

That said, there are other reasons why the Winter Classic has started to lose what makes it special and makes fans, such as myself, slightly annoyed with the event. Not everyone may feel this way, but some may and for those who do not, it is important to lay out the facts and establish why this is the case or view of myself and I am sure some other fans.

The Issues with the Winter Classic

The Winter Classic has some issues that fans of not just their respective teams, but fans of the league as a whole can potentially agree upon. The main issue for the Winter Classic is the lack of appearances and representation of the league’s teams. To understand how and why that is, let us take a look at the teams who have played in the Winter Classic each year:

Winter Classic Games
Year Home Team Visiting Team
2008 Buffalo Sabres Pittsburgh Penguins
2009 Chicago Blackhawks Detroit Red Wings
2010 Boston Bruins Philadelphia Flyers
2011 Pittsburgh Penguins Washington Capitals
2012 Philadelphia Flyers New York Rangers
2014 Detroit Red Wings Toronto Maple Leafs
2015 Washington Capitals Chicago Blackhawks
2016 Boston Bruins Montreal Canadiens
2017 St. Louis Blues Chicago Blackhawks
2018 Buffalo Sabres New York Rangers
2019 Chicago Blackhawks Boston Bruins

 

One can see the issue I am talking about from this history of games of how there are not enough teams playing in these games. And it is becoming hard for some, such as myself, to celebrate these games as much as possible when there is an issue. To put it in perspective, here is another table simply laying out the number of appearances per team:

Winter Classic Appearances
Team Number of Appearances
Chicago Blackhawks 3
Boston Bruins 2
Buffalo Sabres 2
Detroit Red Wings 2
New York Rangers 2
Philadelphia Flyers 2
Pittsburgh Penguins 2
Washington Capitals 2
Montreal Canadiens 1
St. Louis Blues 1
Toronto Maple Leafs 1

 

That is only 11 teams represented from a 31-team league that is set to expand to 32 teams in 2021, with Seattle being recently accepted for expansion. To put that in perspective, that is as if a different team from the league played in the Winter Classic each year but only in a scrimmage against itself. Can you see the issue here? There are also claims that Canadian fans were voicing their displeasure with the NHL’s absence of Canadian teams from the Winter Classic. At one point, it lead the league to bring back the Heritage Classic in some years.

The Stadium Series and Heritage Classic Impact

What about the Stadium Series and Heritage Classic games? Those have to have had different teams play in them? For one, those games — while they are awesome to go to and watch — do not carry the same weight, pride, and symbolism as the Winter Classic. Below is another table showing each Stadium Series game and Heritage Classic game and the teams involved:

Stadium Series Games

Year Home Team Visiting Team
2014 Los Angeles Kings Anaheim Ducks
2014 New Jersey Devils New York Rangers
2014 New York Islanders New York Rangers
2014 Chicago Blackhawks Pittsburgh Penguins
2015 San Jose Sharks Los Angeles Kings
2016 Minnesota Wild Chicago Blackhawks
2016 Colorado Avalanche Detroit Red Wings
2017 Pittsburgh Penguins Philadelphia Flyers
2018 Washington Capitals Toronto Maple Leafs
2019 Philadelphia Flyers Pittsburgh Penguins
Heritage Classic Games
Year Home Team Visiting Team
2003 Edmonton Oilers Montreal Canadiens
2011 Calgary Flames Montreal Canadiens
2014 Vancouver Canucks Ottawa Senators
2016 Winnipeg Jets Edmonton Oilers

 

Now surely with the 10 Stadium Series games over five years, the league has expanded the number of teams playing in outdoor games and if the table from above for appearances is updated from “Winter Classic Appearances” to “Outdoor Game Appearances”, the list would appear as such:

Total Number of Outdoor Game Appearances

Team Number of WC Appearances Number of SS Appearances Number of HC Appearances Total Appearances
Chicago Blackhawks 3 2 0 5
Boston Bruins 2 0 0 2
Buffalo Sabres 2 0 0 2
Detroit Red Wings 2 1 0 3
New York Rangers 2 2 0 4
Philadelphia Flyers 2 2 0 4
Pittsburgh Penguins 2 2 0 4
Washington Capitals 2 1 0 3
Montreal Canadiens 1 0 0 1
St. Louis Blues 1 0 0 1
Toronto Maple Leafs 1 1 0 2
Anaheim Ducks 0 1 0 1
Los Angeles Kings 0 2 0 2
New Jersey Devils 0 1 0 1
New York Islanders 0 1 0 1
San Jose Sharks 0 1 0 1
Minnesota Wild 0 1 0 1
Colorado Avalanche 0 1 0 1
Edmonton Oilers 0 0 2 2
Montreal Canadiens 0 0 2 2
Calgary Flames 0 0 1 1
Vancouver Canucks 0 0 1 1
Ottawa Senators 0 0 1 1
Winnipeg Jets 0 0 1 1

 

Looking at the total number of outdoor games, which includes the Stadium Series and Heritage Classic with the Winter Classic games, there have been 25 games with 24 teams represented out of a now 31 teams. The NHL has done a phenomenal job of team inclusion in outdoor games with the Stadium Series and Heritage Classic. But the main argument here is the Winter Classic and the lack of team appearances in hand with the number of re-appearances. The Winter Classic means something completely different to players, fans, and the NHL than the Stadium Series does. The Winter Classic has its own spotlight, whereas sometimes the Stadium Series just does not carry that same meaning and spotlight, even though it’s still a fun outdoor event for all involved.

The “Reasons” for the Winter Classic Problem

I have heard some counter-arguments for why the league treats the Winter Classic the way that it does. This is in terms of picking which teams to play in the event and the location and out of them all, only one truly holds weight and in reality, it should not. While the Winter Classic pays homage to the roots of the sport on frozen lakes and ponds, that does not mean games can not be played outside of traditional winter areas in North America.

One counter-argument I have heard is the location, specifically when it comes to playing in the southern United States or anywhere in the country where it is not cold enough to snow. The argument is that it is hard to keep satisfactory ice conditions or that it is not a winter wonderland kind of scene which both are completely wrong to bank on as reasons for no Winter Classic games in these locations.

Try telling someone who lives in Los Angeles that having a warm sunshine Christmas is “not normal Christmas weather” because for them it is. Try telling a Tampa Bay Lightning fan in Florida that their Christmas is not the same because they cannot have a White Christmas without a miracle. And they will turn around and tell you they have a White Christmas every year. The difference being they have sand instead of snow.

Location because it doesn’t have winter-like conditions for the Northern Hemisphere is not a good excuse or reason because while it is not normal for some, it is for others. For example, I grew up in New Jersey and lived there for 22 years and now reside in Florida, so winter down here is not normal to me. But it is for all my friends down here who grew up here.

The other counter-argument I mentioned is related to the location in the south and keeping the ice in good condition, which to me is really not an issue. The NHL has done it before and more than once. The preseason game in Las Vegas in 1991 was able to be played. And while it took a lot of effort to keep the ice conditions cool, the main issue was the cool temperature of the ice was attracting grasshoppers and bugs onto the ice. Furthermore, the Stadium Series game between the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks in 2014 took place at Dodgers Stadium in January. The average temperature for Los Angeles, California in January is around 68 degrees. And while that Stadium Series was a warm one, the NHL did a phenomenal job keeping the ice in great shape.

The other counter-argument I’ve heard before is the business side of it for the NHL. What I mean by that is the reason the same teams keep playing in the Winter Classic is that they are either good teams that people expect to be competing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, or they are big market teams. Either way, it will increase revenue from the sale of tickets and memorabilia for the event, as well as the money generated from TV ratings and viewership.

This argument holds weight but it really should not. Implementing this strategy makes sense from the business side of things for the NHL. But the fact is the NHL does not need to pick those kinds of teams every year because the Winter Classic has a big enough spotlight for the league to bring in revenue no matter who is playing. The more it feels like the event is becoming just for monetization or a cash grab rather than a celebration of the sport, it’s history, the fans, players, and the league itself is how the Winter Classic will begin to lose its relevance, strong identity, and what makes the event special.

To Sum It All Up

In conclusion, I love the Winter Classic, but my love for it has been fading the more I see the same teams playing. I’m a Devils fan so I cannot stand teams like the New York Rangers or Philadelphia Flyers, but I still watch the Winter Classic every year when it features teams such as those because it is still an amazing spectacle to experience and watch and that’s just from television.

I would love to see the Devils play a Winter Classic against the Rangers, Flyers, or whoever at MetLife Stadium and only time will tell if that ever becomes a reality. But I am sure that sentiment is similar to other fans and their respective teams who have not played in a Winter Classic or had a chance to host one. The Winter Classic this year will be on New Year’s Day on January 1 at 1PM ET on NBC. I highly encourage all fans to watch, as well as those who have maybe never watched a game before because it always is a beautiful show.

It would just be nice for the NHL to change it up when it comes to the Winter Classic in the future and who plays in it so fans such as myself do not feel like they are watching a team who has already played in the game rather than exposing different and new teams and markets. Having moments like Crosby’s goal and the games themselves in new markets will only maximize the growth of the sport and spectacle of the Winter Classic.

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