It is hard for some to put their finger on exactly what makes the NHL Winter Classic such a special event. The annual New Years’ Day game continuously draws record viewership numbers for TV stations and sees tens of thousands of fans travel from all over the world to watch their favourite team play outdoors. But what is it that makes the game so special?
When you really break it down, it seems like just another NHL regular-season game. The same two points are on the line, the same rosters will take the ice and there is no extra benefit on paper to winning the game. Despite this, the Winter Classic is not just another NHL game.
Is it because it is played outdoors? The fact that it takes place on New Years’ Day? Is it because of the attendance? The new jersey designs? Well yes…. but it’s really not that simple. The Winter Classic is just a different experience for everyone involved.
It is not a common occurrence for the players or fans to get to play/watch an NHL game outdoors. Many NHL teams have yet to experience playing an outdoor game much less than the Winter Classic. Once a team is lucky enough to get the chance to participate in the Winter Classic, you never know how long it will be before you ever get that experience again. So when a team does get the chance, it is important to take it all in and make it an experience to remember.
The atmosphere of playing outdoors is quite different from a typical NHL game. It is not just the weather that alters the experience (although it does), it is the stadium that hosts the game. Whether the game is being played at a football stadium or baseball stadium, it has a much higher capacity for fans than a typical NHL arena. More fans are able to come out to see their favourite teams take the ice and when the fans meet in such a large stadium, it becomes an electric atmosphere. The noise of the crowd is unparalleled to any other NHL game which further adds to the excitement.
It is special for the fans in attendance, however, the players enjoy the game just as much. Many players grew up playing hockey outdoors and for them, the Winter Classic only brings back those childhood memories. The families and friends of the players also get to experience the game which is one of the reasons why the players love it so much.
After each team practice, the players get to bring their families and friends on the ice for a skate to enjoy the beauty of the stadium and the experience with their loved ones. When asked about practicing on the ice at Cotton Bowl Stadium and getting to skate with their loved ones after practice, Dallas Stars defensemen Esa Lindell said, “Really exciting, it was so fun time, having practised out there, sweat a little bit and have families skate and share the excitingness with your family and friends you have there and see how pumped they are too and how pumped everyone is.”
When you go into the Winter Classic, your number one goal is to win the game, the same as with any other hockey game. Although everyone’s top priority is to ultimately win the game, regardless of the final result, it is impossible not to enjoy the rare experience that comes with playing in a Winter Classic. “It was cool. I mean, it was awesome, just having our families here and the crowd here and then having that many people from Nashville is really special, so thanks for all the fans that came out and then yeah, it’s really special for us to get that kind of support and yeah, it would have made it a lot better if we got the win,” said Predators Captain Roman Josi.
For the players that do claim the win, the experience as a whole was one that they will remember for the rest of their lives. “It’s amazing, it’s something surreal, it was hard to expect anything, but I think it was better than all of the expectations,” said Matthias Janmark who was instrumental in the Stars win over the Predators at the 2020 Bridgestone Winter Classic.
After the Stars won the game 4-2, Dallas Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness met with the media where he spoke about what made this year’s Winter Classic such a special event for both his team and for the fans. When I asked him what it was like to be apart of the event following his team’s big win, Bowness said, “Let’s look at it from two sets of eyes. From a coaching perspective, we won the game. We battled back, we survived those early penalties and the guys kept battling and believing and doing what was necessary to get us back in the game. From a fan’s perspective, that was great hockey. If I was out there watching that game and I was watching us on television, that was an awesome game. The whole thing was awesome.”
Some will never understand what makes the NHL Winter Classic so special. It is not something that can be easily explained to someone who has never been able to experience it. There is a reason that players dream of the chance to play in the Winter Classic and take part in the weekend festivities that are included to break open the new year.