Just nine months ago, almost 100,000 people gathered at the Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas to ring in the new year with outdoor hockey. The idea of attending a crowded sports venue seems like a distant memory, let alone the Winter Classic, which holds triple the amount of people that a typical NHL game would. Back all those many months ago, which honestly feels like it was years ago, I got the opportunity to speak with the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators players ahead of the 2020 Winter Classic in Dallas.
This is an article that I have been waiting to post for months now. I wanted to save it to be released when the playoffs started, but then it almost didn’t happen. Once the NHL announced its plans to resume the postseason, I decided that I would post it closer to the Stanley Cup Finals. As luck would have it, the more I waited to post it, the better the Dallas Stars performed. Now it seems as though the article that I have been so anxiously waiting to post is more relevant than ever.
Outdoor hockey seems to bring out the best in both the fans and the players. There is always a lot more excitement for the game when it comes to playing outdoors from both the fans perspective and from the player’s point of view. Outdoor games, especially the Winter Classic, can feel like a playoff game.
The crowds are larger than ever, the fans bring an unprecedented level of energy to the game and the players seem to play the game with more intensity. While some may question the importance of playing outdoors, what cannot be denied is the atmosphere of an outdoor game. The fans love it, the players love it, there’s just something about outdoor hockey that is different from a typical NHL game.
The atmosphere of the Winter Classic is always electrifying. The annual festivities have become one of the NHL’s most popular events throughout the season. It is hard to say exactly what makes the game so special, but it almost doesn’t even matter. When you watch the game, and especially if you get the chance to be there live, you know that despite it being just a normal regular season game on paper, the Winter Classic is much much more than that.
With that being said, aside from the Winter Classic, the next time where we see the same type of atmosphere from both the players and the fans is in the playoffs. While at the 2020 Winter Classic, whether I was sitting in the press box, speaking to the players, or seeing all the families take part in the event, I thought to myself, “how amazing would this be if it was a Stanley Cup Finals game.”
I know, I know, it seems crazy. Outdoor games like the Winter Classic are massive events that require a lot of work to make happen. Regardless of the likelihood of such an event happening, there is no denying that the fans would be all for it – but what would the players think.
An outdoor game in the Stanley Cup Finals does make sense on a fan engagement level. The NHL has already set attendance records for Winter Classic games and they have become fan-favourites. As exciting as they are, it would be that much more intense if the Stanley Cup was on the line. However, some players have different takes on whether or not it is fair for such an important game to be played outdoors.
When I first decided that I would go around asking the Stars and Predators’ players for their thoughts on such a scenario, it was clear that nobody had ever really given it much thought and they were certainly not expecting to be asked this by a young journalist. That was clear to me right from the get go. “Oh, Uh… I haven’t really think about that one.” The star sophomore, Miro Heiskanen, was not expecting to be asked that, especially after mainly being asked questions about the game he would be playing outdoors not even 24 hours after leaving the rink.
The 2020 Winter Classic would be Heiskanen’s second professional outdoor game, having played his first back in his home country of Finland. “But yeah, it’s like really, really exciting moments, and you know, of course it’s always nice to play outdoor games. I actually played one in Finland too, so yeah, it’s going to be fun.”
Miro Heiskanen was not the only player that needed some time before coming up with an answer. “Uh… I don’t know, uh, that’s a tricky question.” Heiskanen’s teammate Esa Lindell also needed a minute before coming up with his answer.
There are many different factors to take into account when it comes to playing hockey outdoors. Factors such as the weather and ice conditions all must be considered. For some players, while agreeing that it would be an unforgettable experience for the fans, are not so comfortable with the prospect of such an important game potentially being influenced by uncontrollable circumstances.
“To be honest, I think it would be cool, I think as a fan perspective, it would be really, really cool. You could imagine a game seven on an outdoor venue with a hundred thousand people or whatever, but as far as how important that game is with the variables in effect right now, I think, uh, I don’t think it would be too fond of by the players. But as a fan, if I were to watch that game, I would be interested for sure.”
Ryan Ellis, who has been to the Stanley Cup Finals once before with the Nashville Predators, highlighted a point that he believes many of his teammates, as well as others around the league share. This being that such an important game should be played in a typical setting that the players are used to that would not present any inhibitors to player’s performances.
Ice Conditions are always a hot topic when it comes to outdoor games. Due to having to create a makeshift rink that must stay intact and bare any weather conditions, the quality of the ice is something that players are always asked ahead of these events. This year, many thought that the ice would be challenging as a result of Dallas’ warm climate, but to the delight of many players, after their first practice at Cotton Bowl Stadium, the ice conditions were better than they had expected.
Stars defensemen Esa Lindell didn’t have anything negative to say about the ice conditions after practicing on it for the first time. “I felt good. Couldn’t complain. It was fast, the puck just didn’t glide much, but that’s not a big deal.” The competition felt the same way with Predators forward Filip Forsberg stating, “It was pretty good. Obviously, it’s probably going to be a little different tomorrow whenever puck drop is and with the hot weather, but it should be good.”
The ice may have been up to Filip Forsberg’s standards, however, he was not sold on the idea of battling for the Stanley Cup in an outdoor setting. “Uh, I think that it would be, I don’t think it would be tough to get the ice, especially in mid June. And I think the conditions are going to be a bit different, so I think that would change too much the actual fairness of the game, but you never know.”
Forsberg’s thoughts about the fairness of playing outdoors were valid, but one Stars player had a different outlook regarding the fairness of competing outdoors for the Stanley Cup. “Uh… I don’t know, that’s a tricky, tough question. Hmm, well, I guess so, why not. In the end, it’s the same ice for both teams, so I guess it just comes to who would have it home or away.”
An outdoor game in the finals does make sense on a fan engagement level. The NHL has already set record attendances for Winter Classic games and they have become fan-favourites. As exciting as the outdoor games are, it would be that much more intense if the Stanley Cup was on the line.
Nevertheless, at the end of the day, although it would easily be the most exciting and anticipated game of the year, it is about good hockey when all is said and done. The fate of the Stanley Cup should not be impacted in a game that has potential obstacles such as ice conditions and unpredictable weather patterns. As for the players thoughts, however, it seems that there is a divide.
Nobody can deny the excitement and the atmosphere that would come out of such a spectacle, but as for whether or not the players want to risk winning the toughest trophy in sports simply for the outdoor attractions, battling it out indoors seems to be the preferred option.
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