FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Since the NHL first experimented with outdoor games more than a decade ago, the Winter Classic has grown into a festival of fresh air hockey that this year included for the first time a professional women’s game.
As part of the buildup to the New Year’s Day game between the archrival Bruins and Canadiens, the Boston Pride played the Montreal Canadiennes at the home of the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. The two leagues that participated hope it will be a turning point in their effort to gain a footing on the professional women’s sports scene.
“What great exposure,” Pride defenceman Marissa Gedman said. “Especially to have the NHL backing us. That’s huge.”
But there is still a way to go: The women’s teams played two, 15-minute periods with running time and a friends-and-family crowd of a few hundred people. The game ended in a 1-1 tie.
Asked what more she could have hoped for, Pride defenceman Blake Bolden said: “a third period.”
“I couldn’t get enough,” said Gedman, who is from the suburb of Framingham and grew up rooting for the Patriots and other Boston teams. “It was so amazing. I could do that for the rest of my life.”
The first period ended when a Pride player, Denna Laing of Marblehead, crashed into the boards and was taken off on a stretcher. The league said she was transported to Massachusetts General Hospital. No further information on her condition was immediately available.
The women’s game was followed by a matchup of NHL old-timers from the Bruins and Canadiens. Outside, a free spectator plaza with live music, family-friendly games and a public skating rink completed the festival atmosphere that has come to surround the Winter Classic and make it the league’s signature regular-season event.
Fans booed the Canadiens alumni, but mostly good-naturedly, and the style of play was more reminiscent of a no-defence All-Star game than one of the bone-crunching battles the teams have waged through their history.
Friday’s game is not expected to be so genteel – not with the teams separated by one point in the Eastern Conference standings.
“Playing on a stage like this is something you’ll remember for the rest of your life,” Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban said. “It goes beyond just the game of hockey. We know that everybody’s got their family and friends here. … The one thing you want to stress in the dressing room … is to enjoy it, take it in, drink it in. We want to get the win and the two points. But enjoy the experience because it is just that, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Here is a look at some of the milestones in hockey’s return to its outdoor roots:
COLD WAR: It all started in college in 2001, when Michigan State decided to move its hockey game against rival Michigan to the football stadium. The game, which ended in a 3-3 tie, drew a then-record attendance of 74,554 and perhaps convinced NHL officials that an outdoor game was possible.
HERITAGE CLASSIC: Two years later, the Edmonton Oilers celebrated their 25th year in the NHL by playing the Canadiens in the first “Heritage Classic” – the first regular-season NHL game to be played outdoors. Despite a wind-chill temperature that dipped to minus-22 (Fahrenheit), a crowd of 57,167 in Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium saw the Canadiens beat the Oilers 4-3. Montreal goalie Jose Theodore wore a winter cap over his helmet.
The regulation match was also preceded by an old-timers’ game that included Wayne Gretzky and Guy Lafleur, as well as Mark Messier, who was still playing for the New York Rangers at the time.
NEW YEAR’S DAY: The current look of the Winter Classic really took shape on New Year’s Day, 2008, when the Sabres hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins at Ralph Wilson Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. (Pittsburgh won 2-1 on Sidney Crosby’s clincher in the shootout.) Snow flurries added to the wintry feel, and the teams switched sides midway through the third period (and again in overtime) to neutralize any advantage gained by wind or sun.
The teams wore vintage uniforms, which has also become a Winter Classic staple.
FROZEN FENWAY: The last time the Winter Classic came to Boston, the festivities ballooned into several weeks of skating- and hockey-related festivities. In addition to the Jan. 1 game between the Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers, which Boston won 2-1 in overtime, the rink was used for men’s and women’s college games; practice for the U.S. women’s Olympic hockey team and, at Mayor Tom Menino’s urging, local youth teams and city residents also had a chance to skate on the ice.
MAKING UP FOR LOST TIME: After the first Winter Classic, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said he wanted to limit the number of outdoor games so they would remain special. But when the entire 2013-14 season was cancelled by the owners’ lockout, the league came back the following year with a three-game “Stadium Series” along with another Heritage Classic game – in addition to the traditional Jan. 1 Winter Classic. (Toronto beat Detroit 3-2 in a shootout at the University of Michigan’s Big House with an announced attendance of more than 105,000.)
This year, the league has scheduled two Stadium Series games next month, one in Minneapolis and one in Denver.