The NHL’s Winter Classic’s Road to the Big House Part 1

The NHL’s Road to the Big House

New Year’s Day, long one of the high holy days of American football with bowl game after bowl game, is fast becoming a holy day for hockey fans thanks to the NHL’s Winter Classic series.

This year’s Winter Classic between the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor was a huge success.  The  game set an NHL attendance record with 105,491 fans and set records for TV viewership.  More importantly, like many of the Winter Classic games so far — it was a thriller.

How exactly is it that the NHL found its way outdoors?

Would you believe the road begins in Las Vegas?

Yes, Las Vegas to an extent, but then the road leads to Michigan and record crowds to see Michigan and Michigan State.

Even stranger, later this month it will lead to Dodger Stadium.

Part 1: From Vegas to Buffalo

What started with a single exhibition in Las Vegas featuring the Great One – Wayne Gretsky – grew into the Winter Classic thanks to the success at the college level in Michigan and with the debut of the Heritage Classic in Canada.

Chapter 1

Viva Zamboni

September 27, 1991

New York Rangers v Los Angeles Kings

Caesar’s Palace (13,307)


Los Angeles 5, New York 2

From Wikipedia

The idea of having an exhibition ice hockey game outdoors in Las Vegas belongs to Rich Rose, president of Caesars World Sports and a Rangers fan, who first proposed it in 1988. His idea was met with criticism and incredulity, but Steve Flatow, the NHL’s marketing director at the time, suggested Rose talk to the Los Angeles Kings. Rose was able to convince the team’s executive vice-president, Roy Mlakar, and the team’s owner, Bruce McNall. After that, when the New York Rangers were asked to join the game and agreed, the event was scheduled for September 27, 1991. The temporary seats and rink were erected for a total cost of $135,000, and were ready two days prior to the start of the game.[3] The ice was laid down by Bob May of Ice Systems of America. According to May, the outside ice rink in Las Vegas was “a big challenge”, using three times the refrigeration equipment as one would for a regular rink. The lines on the rink were not painted, as is usually done, but were fabric strips laid into the ice.

The air temperature at puck drop was around 85 °F (29 °C), going as high as 95 °F (35 °C) during the course of the game, with 28% humidity, though the ice held up well.

Chapter 2

Cold War on Ice

October 6, 2001

Michigan Wolverines v Michigan State Spartans

The Las Vegas experiment didn’t exactly have NHL officials begging for a repeat. but when Michigan and Michigan State played before nearly 75,000 fans at Spartan Stadium the hockey world took notice.  The Cold War, as it became known, happened when  Michigan State  decided not to move its game against Michigan outdoors to  Spartan Stadium, which they filled to 103.4% of capacwity.

Spartan Stadium (74,554)


Michigan 3, Michigan State 3

Chapter 3

Heritage Classic I
November 22, 2003

Montreal Canadians v. Edmonton Oilers

Commonwealth Stadium (57,167)


Montreal 4, Edmonton 3

From Wikipedia

The success of the Cold War led to the first Heritage classic was played in 2003 and hosted by the Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers had suggested the idea of hosting an outdoor game as early as the mid 1980s, but the genesis of the 2003 event was the “Cold War” outdoor game played two years prior between Michigan State University and the University of Michigan. The first regular season outdoor game in NHL history, it was held at Commonwealth Stadiumbetween the Oilers and the Montreal Canadiens.

Demand for tickets to the game was unprecedented in the history of Edmonton sports events. After sales to Edmonton’s season ticket holders and league sponsors, the Oilers held a lottery for the remaining 7,000 seats that awarded 1,750 persons the opportunity to purchase four tickets each. The team received over 750,000 entries from around the world. The game attracted a crowd of 57,167 that set an NHL single-game attendance record that more than doubled the previous mark.

… The event took place in Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium in front of a crowd of 57,167, despite temperatures of close to −18 °C, −30 °C (−22 °F) with wind chill.  It was held to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Edmonton Oilers joining the NHL in 1979 and the 20th anniversary of their first Stanley Cup win in 1984. The CBC television broadcast drew 2.747 million viewers in Canada, the second-highest audience for a regular-season NHL game.[3] This was the first NHL game broadcast in HD on CBC.

Chapter 4

Winter Classic comes to USA

January 1, 2008


Pittsburgh Penguins v Buffalo Sabres

Ralph Wilson Stadium (71,217)

(23F + Snow)

Pittsburgh 2, Buffalo 1 (shootout) 

From Wikipedia:

The 2008 NHL Winter Classic . . . was the first outdoor regular-season professional ice hockey game to be played in the United States. . . The game, which was played at a temporary ice rink built on the football field at Ralph Wilson Stadium, set an NHL attendance record of 71,217.The Sabres held a Winter Classic “house party” at HSBC Arena during the game where another 11,000 fans saw the game shown live on the arena’s video scoreboard with synched-up audio from the team’s radio coverage.

The teams wore vintage jerseys for the event, with the Penguins wearing powder blue jerseys for the first time since 1973. The Sabres wore their old white jerseys, which they wore from 1978 to1996/

The game was televised in the United States on NBC and in Canada on CBC and RDS. Westwood One broadcast the game on radio, and XM Satellite Radio aired the game, as well. Some NBC affiliates in the United States decided instead to play the game on secondary channels often used for weather service. Therefore, in some markets, fans with satellite service with DirecTV or DISH Network were unable to watch the game. Despite this, and competing with broadcasts of college football bowl games (this was particularly noted in the Detroit, Michigan market, usually a strong market for hockey ratings, where the Wolverines were playing in the Capital One Bowl), the game garnered a 2.6 rating and 5 share, the highest rating for a regular season NHL game since 1996, and the highest share since Wayne Gretzky’s final game in 1999, in a near tie with second-place CBS’s 2.7 rating for Gator Bowl coverage. The production earned a 38.1 rating in Buffalo and 17.7 rating in Pittsburgh, to lead all markets.



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