DALLAS – It wasn’t enough for Ben Bishop to commission customized throwback pads and a freshly painted Lone Star State–themed goalie mask for the first Deep South Winter Classic.
No. He wanted the whole team to give New Year’s Day at the Cotton Bowl the sense of occasion it deserved.
Ben Bishop wanted all the Dallas Stars to dress up like cowboys, even if the look didn’t feel natural to the Swedes.
And once Bishop got his club’s no-BS captain on board, it was a wrap.
“Jamie Benn came to everyone and said, ‘Look, this is what we’re going to do. Let’s do it right,’ ” recalls forward Jason Dickinson.
So, on the afternoon of Dec. 12, the entire roster went to esteemed cowboy bootfitter Lucchese and got all dude-ranched up.
Look good, play good.
Which the Stars did Wednesday, rallying to swipe the first NHL game of the decade from the rival Nashville Predators 4-2 — “the cherry on top,” Bishop said, of a day neither team will forget.
With all its gleeful extraneous flair, the 2020 Winter Classic played out like the nightclub of “Weekend Update” guest Stefon’s dreams.
This event had everything: show horses, fireworks, a hockey team that only wore black to honour Johnny Cash (the Preds), a fighter jet flyover, square dancers, headshots, flame balls, country bands, Troy Aikman, penalty shots, golf carts, the longest walk of shame in hockey history, pig races, 68 body checks, jugglers, fluffy make-believe snow, a viral video of a popular analyst eating a corndog, a mechanical bull, Ricky Williams, power-plays galore, some guy jumping rope on a unicycle, some louder fireworks that totally spooked the beige horses….
Oh, and a rather eventual afternoon of outdoor hockey played before 85,630 fans at a sold-out legendary college football stadium.
Prior to puck drop, there was much talk about the importance of the southernmost Classic as not just a celebration of hockey and New Year’s Day in the sunbelt but as a meaningful “four-point game” between testy divisional rivals in the clusterfight Central.
“We don’t like each other,” said Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness, making a Texas-sized understatement before overseeing a Texas-size comeback.
All the fun pomp of the day turned trite two minutes and 44 seconds after puck drop.
Dallas fourth-line winger Corey Perry elbowed Nashville’s unsuspecting top-pair defenceman Ryan Ellis directly in the head — a dirty foul that took place under the gaze of NHL’s chief disciplinarian, George Parros, in town for the occasion.
Ellis remained down on the ice for minutes before being helped up by teammates and loaded onto a golf cart. He never returned.
“He hits his head completely, and it’s tough for us to lose a guy that normally plays 25-plus minutes,” said Mattias Ekholm, believing the game’s physicality reached playoff levels.
Roman Josi agreed: “That’s the kind of hit you’re trying to get out of the game. [Ellis] is shooting the puck, and he gets him right in the head. I thought was a really, really bad hit.”
Perry was dealt a five-minute elbowing major plus a game misconduct before making the longest walk of shame in hockey history, down the padded carpet, up the tunnel and back to the showers.
“Corey Perry would never try to hurt anyone. He would play hard,” Bowness defended. “I feel terrible for Corey Perry to be thrown out of that game early like that because when you see that in your calendar in the summer, you’re looking forward to that. You really are.
“But our guys won the game for Corey. They battled back.”
The Predators quickly made Dallas pay for Perry’s recklessness. After Blake Comeau flipped a puck over glass, Nashville’s Matt Duchene slammed in the first goal at 5-on-3, then set up defenceman Dante Fabbro at 5-on-4, giving the visitors a 2-0 jump on fresh ice.
The Stars pressed back, naturally.
Denis Gurianov earned a first-period penalty shot by driving hard to the net but was foiled by Pekka Rinne.
Comeau, who left halfway through the first frame after Austin Watson hammered him and his head smacked the ice, returned to snap a one-timer past Rinne and give the seas of green reason to sing late in the second.
“When you see him come back out and he’s got fire under him, it lights up everybody else,” Dickinson said.
That would be the first of four unanswered goals the Stars zipped past Rinne in a span of 7:42, during which the Predators failed to even muster a shot on net.
“We let them just come wave after wave after wave,” Ekholm lamented.
Mattias Janmark tipped home a John Klingberg point shot, then Klingberg teed up Alexander Radulov on the power play for a fully cocked one-timer from the flank. The bowl erupted.
“That was the loudest I’ve been on the ice before,” Tyler Seguin said.
The onslaught continued when trailer Andrej Sekera tapped in a rebound off a green rush.
Comeback complete. Collapse complete.
A disheartening unravelling for the Predators, in a season that has already seen its share.
“I don’t know. We’re in trouble right now,” said Rinne, despondent.
“I love this team. I still take this team over any team. I still believe we can bounce back and we can find ways to win games.
“This game, it didn’t feel like just a regular-season game. It felt something bigger, and so that just makes it makes it a little bit worse and makes it sting a little bit more.”
It was of little solace, then, that Ro-HAM Josi won the pig race final.
“I saw it on the big screen at one point, and I had to look away,” Dickinson said. “I knew I’d get in trouble.”
Indeed, the local heroes were all jokes and laughter, feeling, justly, like they’d given a storybook finish for all those tens of thousands draped in beautiful throwback sweaters and hollering “Dallas! Stars!” in deafening unison.
But before they left the ice to change back into their cowpoke getups, someone suggested the Stars take a team photo, with 85,630 fans in the background.
That’s the moment, on that icy 50-yard line, that will cling to Seguin like a bolo tie.
“Something,” he said, “I’ll never forget.”