DALLAS – As he made the long walk out of the Cotton Bowl’s spacious home locker room and down the tunnel to a hockey rink where the 50-yard line should be, and as he looked up at the vast empty bowl that would soon be filled with rabid Southern hockey fans, football nut Ben Bishop thought back to all the adrenalin-fuelled pigskin introductions he’d seen.
“Walking out to a full stadium like that… I think that’s kind of the coolest part. You’re gonna feel like Ray Lewis there doing the dance,” smiled the Dallas Stars goalie, sweaty post-practice eye black smearing down his cheeks.
“Too bad we couldn’t do this every game.”
Winter Classic 2020 is kinda like a big deal in Big D.
All flights from BNA to DFW sold out with folks decked out gold and grins, so the rest of the Nashville Predators diehards piled into vehicles and made the 10-hour drive southwest to party like it’s 2019.
The NHL allotted some 20,000 seats to Wednesday’s Classic for the road team to hawk to its fan base, knowing that unsold tickets could spill back into the Dallas market in order to pile the maximum number of people into an open-air college football stadium for a hockey event.
Instead, the Preds sold ’em and came asking for more.
Nearly 30,000 Nashville supporters will invade Cotton Bowl Stadium on New Year’s Day for a game that matters — to the playoff race as well as the memory bank.
“To be honest, I expect nothing less,” said Nashville’s Ryan Ellis. “We have some amazing fans.”
NHL exec Steve Meyer first dreamed of this day after making a low-key visit among the 92,000 college-football fanatics taking in the Red River Showdown between Oklahoma and Texas in October of 2018.
“The folks that live here know a big event, and they do it really, really well. So, we had great confidence that coming here, we could put on our show,” said Meyer, originally planning to tarp over swaths of empty seat and play to a crowd of 65,000.
“We’ll be honest: We didn’t think we could sell 85,000 tickets. Then the tickets went on sale, and we were like, ‘This is unbelievable.’”
Imagine that. The league’s southernmost outdoor game will draw the second-largest regular-season attendance in NHL (the Maple Leafs and Red Wings drew 104,173 to Michigan Stadium for the 2014 Classic) and inject a Texas-sized $30 million into the local economy.
“How awesome is that?” says Predators coach Peter Laviolette.
“It says a lot about the growth of the sport in general to be in Texas, against a team in Nashville, and close to 90,000 people that want to watch a hockey game outdoors.”
Predictably, the frequency of the NHL’s revenue-raking outdoor matches — what Steve Yzerman memorably dubbed “the golden goose” — has sapped some of their unique lustre on a national scale after throwing 29 of them.
Yet, to the two markets involved, they remain rich wells of excitement. Wonderful excuses to buy a fresh throwback sweater, road-trip with buddies, fly in the family, and call upon the hair-of-the-dog method as you wipe away New Year’s Eve’s cobwebs.
Hours after those infuriating Cowboys failed to make the playoffs, there is a palpable buzz in Dallas.
“It shows you the magnitude of it,” said Stars interim coach Rick Bowness, who grew his own love for the game on backyard pads in Nova Scotia.
“The rink and the atmosphere and everything else changes. How we approach the game will not change.”
Equally as beautiful as the spectacle will be the meaning of the actual hockey.
Of the 12 Winter Classics held since this New Year’s baby was born, only half have pitted divisional foes against one another, and only two of those matches (Rangers-Flyers in 2012 and Blues-Blackhawks in 2017) featured two clubs with legitimate championship aspirations.
Beyond the pomp and circumstance, there’s an argument to be made that Stars-Preds could be the fiercest actual hockey game in Winter Classic history.
“Everything against each other, it’s always like a war,” said Stars goaltender Anton Khudobin. “It’s a team that we know inside and out.”
While Nashville’s abnormally dismal goaltending (a 30th-ranked .887 team save percentage) has it outside the wild-card picture looking in, the Predators’ points percentage (.553) is only slightly behind Dallas’s (.600), and there is firm belief among the Preds that they’re better than their record indicates.
In the pool of death that has become the Central Division, it’s not difficult to imagine the two points hanging in the balance Wednesday playing a factor in playoff positioning.
These sides already gave us an epic six-game series last spring that featured four one-goal decisions and a pair of sudden-death thrillers.
“Last year the playoffs really put a stamp on the rivalry we have with Nashville,” says Bishop. “To have them as the opponent for the Winter Classic, it’s just going to make it that much better.
“They’re right on our heels, so they’re going to be champing at the bit to get that win. So, it’s important for us to go out there and take care of business. It does make a little bit more interesting.”
Preds defenceman Mattias Ekholm sounds more defiant.
“We owe ’em from last year, and we owe ’em from the game we [lost] this year. It builds up. We gotta fight like crazy for the points,” Ekholm said.
“You want to pay back what they did to us in our building.”
— Nashville Predators (@PredsNHL) December 30, 2019
As is always the case when exposing a sensitive playing surface to the elements, ice conditions have been a concern running up to the main event.
“We were concerned a few days ago that we might not even have a practice today, so the ice crew did a phenomenal job,” Bowness said. “The ice was better than we probably would have anticipated.”
A surge of unseasonably warm air conspired with heavy rainfall over the weekend to challenge the Cotton Bowl rink’s maintenance crews. Even 3,000 thousand gallons of coolant, 243 below-surface ice pans, and the world’s largest mobile refrigeration unit (53 feet) can’t deke Mother Nature.
A sunny Tuesday forced hockey ops to push the clubs’ scheduled practices back three hours, into early New Year’s Eve.
“Today there was a little bit of glare, and that was without the sun being on the ice,” said Tyler Seguin, after smearing off the eye black.
Stars GM Jim Nill isn’t being facetious when he says we’ll be “blessed” with a cloudy New Year’s Day, which should cut down the goalies’ glare when tracking pucks.
Even overcast, at puck drop Dallas’s temperature is a forecasted 11.1°C, well above the 1.8°C Classic average.
Indeed, this should not only be the hottest Winter Classic on record but the most critical in terms of outcome.
“I always want to play one,” said Seguin, who believed his chances of participating in an outdoor game vanished the day he was traded from Boston to Dallas.
“So it’s surreal. When we heard rumblings that this could happen, I was very ecstatic. And now it’s finally here. I can’t wait for tomorrow.”
In the parlance of a couple country-and-western hockey towns, giddy yap.