The NHL and Outdoor Games: A Brief History

On Sunday, the Philadelphia Flyers are going to travel on the road, but it will not be to Boston. Instead, they are traveling to Lake Tahoe to play in one of 2 outdoor games the NHL has scheduled this season. Over the years, the NHL has tried to push for more and more outdoor games. This Lake Tahoe experiment is nothing new, as we have seen the NHL get more and more ambitious when it comes to these types of games.

The First Big NHL Outdoor Game: September 27, 1991

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Truth be told, the NHL and the outdoors go back all the way to the 1950s, when the Red Wings took on a team from Marquette Prison, and promptly had an 18-0 lead after the 1st period. Two years later, the Bruins traveled to Newfoundland and played a handful of games against local teams on an outdoor surface. However, the first major outdoor National Hockey League exhibition happened during the preseason of the 1991-92 league year.

Caesars World Sports President Rich Rose wanted an outdoor game to take place at the parking lot of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas back in 1988. He had to wait a few years for that to happen, as the concept was revived years later. The teams were relatively easy to choose. Rose was a lifelong Rangers fan, and represented one of the NHL’s biggest markets. Wayne Gretzky was now in Los Angeles playing for the Kings, and they are not too far from Sin City. The two largest markets in America were going to be kicking off the NHL’s 75th season in style.

Even though the Vegas heat was strong that night, the ice remained in tact. The Kings won the game 5-2, with 5 different players finding the back of the net, Wayne Gretzky being one of them. 25 years later, the NHL would announce that a team would permanently come to Las Vegas, where they play as the Vegas Golden Knights.

The First Heritage Classic: November 22, 2003

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Why did the league feel a need to dip into the market of an outdoor spectacle? They saw the success of the NCAA’s Cold War games between Michigan and Michigan State. They would always sell out Michigan Stadium, the largest in the United States, and they felt that they could do the same in Canada.

In 2003, the National Hockey League had their first regular season outdoor game. The Edmonton Oilers took on the Montreal Canadiens at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton in the 2003 Heritage Classic. Montreal secured the victory 4-3 thanks to 2 goals from Richard Zednik. After that, the game just disappeared, and many thought we would never see another Heritage Classic.

Fast forward to the 2010-2011 season, and the NHL decided to bring back the concept, at Calgary’s McMahon Stadium with a game between the Canadiens and Flames. Calgary goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff was able to shutout a potent Montreal offense. Every couple of years, the NHL decides to do a Heritage Classic in Canada. BC Place in Vancouver, Investors Group Field in Winnipeg, and Mosaic Stadium in Regina, Saskatchewan have all hosted an outdoor game.

Each Heritage Classic game has been attended by over 33,000 people, and is usually one of the biggest hockey games in Canada. The future of the tradition is currently unknown, but if the current pattern holds, we may be due very soon for another outdoor game up in the Great White North.

The First Winter Classic: January 1, 2008

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Not long after the league saw the success of the Heritage Classic in 2003, the NHL wanted to get more outdoor games on the schedule. However, the league was financially unstable following the 2004-05 lockout, and the NHL decided it might not be wisest to do a yearly outdoor game right away. The higher ups decided to wait a few years, and on New Year’s Day in 2008, the first Winter Classic took place.

The teams were easy to choose. The Pittsburgh Penguins had two young stars in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and looked like a powerhouse after years of failing to contend. The Buffalo Sabres were coming off of a Presidents Trophy the season prior and were three games away from going to the 2007 Stanley Cup Finals. The site of the game? Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium, where there would be no shortage of snow. The Penguins won 2-1 on a shootout goal by Crosby.

Since then, the Winter Classic has taken place every year, in a wide variety of stadiums. The only two years it did not take place were 2013 because of the lockout and 2021 because of the pandemic. In 2014, the Toronto Maple Leafs played the Detroit Red Wings at Michigan Stadium, and shattered the NHL attendance record as over 105,000 people saw the Leafs’ shootout win. The Chicago Blackhawks have played in four Winter Classics, and have lost every single one. They are one of two teams to host multiple, the Boston Bruins being the other.

There were almost certainly be more NHL Winter Classics, even when things return to normal. It’s one of the most watched regular season games of the year, even going up against college football bowl games. In 2022, the tradition is set to head up north to Minnesota’s Target Field for the first time.

The First Stadium Series: January 25, 2014

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What happens when you take the Winter Classic, amplify it a little bit, and play it once a year? You get the NHL Stadium Series, the newest phase of outdoor National Hockey League games. Since 2014, the hockey audience has been treated to at least one extra outdoor game. The first series of which came in 2014, when the Anaheim Ducks shutout the Los Angeles Kings 3-0 at Dodger Stadium. Days later, the New York Rangers defeated the New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders at Yankee Stadium.

Following the first test run of the NHL Stadium Series, there has now only been one each season. The only exception of this was in 2016, when the Minnesota Wild throttled the Chicago Blackhawks 6-1 at Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium and the Detroit Red Wings beat their hated rivals, the Colorado Avalanche at Coors Field in Denver. The Penguins and Flyers have played each other twice in the Stadium Series, with each team getting a home game. The league also has explored the idea of military stadiums hosting Stadium Series, as the United States Naval Academy and the United States Air Force have both had NHL games played there. This marked the second home Stadium Series game for the Avalanche, who are the only team to host multiple of them. They went on to lose both.

In 2021, the league was scheduled to have the Stadium Series take place at Carter-Finley Stadium, across from PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina. That has since been postponed to 2022 due to the pandemic. Much like the Winter Classic, I think Stadium Series are going to stick around for some time, as they also draw in huge crowds.

So, What Does the Future Hold?

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This weekend will be the two games on the fairway of the Edgewood Golf Course in Lake Tahoe. As the photo above will tell you, the scenery is picturesque, and it is the most unique place the NHL has decided to go. Could this spark a new wave of outdoor NHL games?

Maybe the success is not in massive stadiums. Instead, it could be in different places each year. Could you imagine an NHL game on the roof of a Las Vegas casino? Maybe a game on Miami Beach? Or what about a game played at Disney World? The possibilities are endless.

The Lake Tahoe experiment could end up being a massive success or a huge failure. There will be no ticket revenue to judge it on, so we will have to take the word of mouth from the players and coaches. Keep an eye on the ratings as well. If the Lake Tahoe games draw more than the Stadium Series usually does, the NHL might find a new formula to showcase outdoor hockey to the public.

Photo Credit on Featured Image: Eric Hartline/USA Today Sports

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