The NHL Winter Classic is an annual event held by the National Hockey League (NHL) on or around New Year's Day in which a regular-season ice hockey game is played outdoors) generally in a football or baseball stadium) in an area with a resident NHL team.
The first Winter Classic was held in 2008 at the Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, New York, between the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins.
A total of eight have been held, the most recent one taking place in 2016 between the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins.
After the success of the 2003 NHL 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, suspending only in 2013 due to the 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 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 of 2014, the SportsBusiness Journal and SportsBusiness Daily named the Winter Classic its "Sports Event of the Year," making it 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 of 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.
The third Winter Classic was held at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 1, 2010, featuring the Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers. The result was a 2–1 overtime win for Boston, the first home team to win a Winter Classic.
The 2011 game was played at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals with Washington winning 3–1.
The fifth Winter Classic was held at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on January 2, 2012, featuring the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers. The result was a 3–2 win for New York.
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, and 2014.
The 2008 and 2014 games also featured the teams switching ends halfway through the five-minute sudden-death overtime period for the same reason; in addition, during both games' shootouts, 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 1st lands on Sunday) and to prevent a weather delay from pushing 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) reportedly was preferred, but as the Eagles hosted a home game on January 1st, so 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 NHL 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.
The seventh Winter Classic was announced on September 21, 2013 when Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis announced the 2015 Winter Classic would be hosted by his franchise.
On June 22, 2014, the NHL announced the Capitals would play the Chicago Blackhawks.
On September 10, 2014, the NHL announced the game would be played at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C.
The eighth Winter Classic was announced on January 24, 2015 at an All Star Game press conference when the NHL announced that the Winter Classic would return to Massachusetts, with the Boston Bruins hosting the Montreal Canadiens at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. On January 1, 2016, the Montreal Canadiens won the 2016 Winter Classic by defeating the Boston Bruins 5–1.
The Montreal Canadiens were welcomed with the return of Brendan Gallagher, who had missed 17 games due to broken fingers that required surgery, and managed a goal and an assist, earning him the first star of the game.
The ninth Winter Classic was announced on March 9, 2016; that game will be held on January 2, 2017 with the St. Louis Blues hosting the Chicago Blackhawks at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri.
The game will be one of two NHL outdoor showcase games held during New Year's weekend, with the special one-off Centennial Classic being played on January 1st.
|Detroit Red Wings||2||2014||1||1|
|Toronto Maple Leafs||1||2014||1||0|
|New York Rangers||1||2012||1||0|
|St. Louis Blues||1||2017||0||0|
The participating teams have worn throwback or retro-style sweaters during the games.
- Pittsburgh Penguins: 1970–71
- Buffalo Sabres: 1970–71
- Detroit Red Wings: 1926–27 Detroit Cougars
- Chicago Blackhawks: 1935–36 design with 1948–49 logo
- Philadelphia Flyers: 1973–74 with modern font for their numbers and a black nameplate, became permanent road jersey the following season.
- Boston Bruins: 1958–59 design with brown stripes instead of black and 1948–49 inspired logo (the original form of the "spoked-B" logo).
- Washington Capitals: 1974–75
- Pittsburgh Penguins: 1967–68 sweater with colors reversed and crest logo instead of diagonal "Pittsburgh" lettering that appeared on original jerseys.
- New York Rangers: Traditional sweater design in off-white with straight-lined player names and blue numbers with red trim in felt rather than drop-shadow tackle twill.
Striping on shoulders, arms and tail is a variation of the ones they currently use and the crest logo a modern variation of the logo used for the team's inaugural season in 1926.
- Philadelphia Flyers: Traditional sweater design in orange with black numbers and off-white trim.
The striping on shoulders, arms and tail is different from the current sweaters. The stripe design was inspired by a sock design the team wore in the 1980s. This design would be used as an alternate uniform in 2014.
- Toronto Maple Leafs: Toronto's uniforms were royal blue and white and featured the distinct striping configuration inspired by the 1930s Maple Leafs.
The front crest of the jersey featured a distinct wordmark from the inaugural Maple Leafs' logo, revealed in 1927. The neckline design is taken from the sweaters worn by the Leafs throughout the 1960s and the running stitch detail on the numbers is a tribute to the Leafs' sweater from the mid-1950s.
- Detroit Red Wings: Detroit wore red and antique white uniforms featuring a striping pattern and arch Detroit wordmark inspired by the late-1920s Detroit Cougars.
The front crest on the jersey featured an early iteration of the winged wheel from the late 1930s Red Wings.
- Chicago Blackhawks: Chicago's jerseys were based on their 1957 jerseys, white with red and black stripping on the bottom, lace-up collars and the tomahawk logo near the elbows.
- Washington Capitals: While the Capitals' uniforms were not technically "throwbacks" because they represented a new uniform not previously worn by the team, they were a combined look back at hockey in D.C.
Washington wore red sweaters (in a darker shade of red than the team's normal uniforms) with white stripes atop the shoulders and along the bottom, the front featuring the team's name in white over a large blue 'W', with the center of the 'W' stylized like the Washington Monument.
The throwback sweaters are very 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 NHL 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 U.S.), rivaling the ratings for the Stanley Cup.
Its popularity in the United States led to the American Hockey League adopting a similar contest in 2010, the AHL Outdoor Classic which it has reprised each year since.
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.
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 low and declining.
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.
Sports Illustrated columnist Dan Shaughnessy said of the new Winter Classic, "[N]ow hockey owns New Year's Day the way baseball owns the Fourth of July and football owns Thanksgiving."
2014 Winter Classic
The 2014 Winter Classic between the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs had an NHL-record paid attendance of 105,491 and a television viewership in the U.S. and Canada of 8.2 million television viewers, a North American record for a regular season game.
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 Winter Classic has been a ratings success for NBC, averaging 4.1 million viewers since its inception in 2008.
The Winter Classic games rank among the most watched regular season NHL games since 1975.
The 2011 Winter Classic (which played in prime time) beating out the programming on the other three major networks.
Future Game Sites
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 Citi Field, FedEx Field, Busch Stadium, Ohio 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.
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.
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. Another possibility for the Penguins or Flyers would be Beaver Stadium on the campus of Penn State University, located between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.