We’re a little over a week into the NHL regular season, so you know what that means: It must be time for an outdoor game.
OK, that may have been harsh. We’ve waited a long time for an outdoor game in Winnipeg, and this weekend’s Heritage Classic between the Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers should be all sorts of fun.
But it’s probably fair to say that while most fans still love the spectacle of an outdoor game, some of the novelty has worn off over the years, thanks to the league overdoing the concept.
This year’s schedule features four outdoor games — up from last year’s three, but still well under the record six games that the NHL served up in 2013-14.
Counting a handful of exhibitions, Sunday’s game will mark the 22nd outdoor game in NHL history. Some of those have been memorable. Others, not so much.
Today, let’s look back at those 21 outdoor games that are already in the books and count them down from worst to best. It’s a subjective list, obviously, but we’ll be looking at a few criteria, including the novelty factor, the venue, the buildup, and the quality of the game itself.
Oh, and games will get bonus points for actually being played outside. That’s bad news for the first game on our list…
#21: March 2, 2014 – Senators 4, Canucks 2 (BC Place)
Let’s see if we can list all the problems with the league’s worst-ever outdoor game.
It featured two teams with no history or rivalry of any kind. The novelty factor was close to zero, given that it was the sixth outdoor game in nine weeks and the second one played that weekend. The game itself was only marginally entertaining, and is probably best remembered for John Tortorella’s decision to nuke the team’s relationship with Roberto Luongo for no particular reason.
And, oh yeah, it wasn’t actually played outdoors – rain forced the stadium’s retractable roof to be closed. The only argument against this game being dead last on our list is that it technically shouldn’t be on here at all.
#20: April 9, 1956 – Bruins vs. Bay Roberts local teams (Conception Bay Sports Arena)
This was a weird one. As part of an exhibition series played after the Boston Bruins’ regular season had ended, the team made a series of stops through Newfoundland to face local teams.
That included a stop in Conception Bay for what was supposed to be a fairly standard game against three local squads. But the local arena wasn’t finished yet, so the event ended up being played outdoors in fog and drizzle.
At one point, according to legend, Bruins’ goalie Terry Sawchuk was spotted holding an umbrella.
#19: January 1, 2011 – Capitals 3, Penguins 1 (Heinz Field)
You could make a strong case that the fourth Winter Classic was the most-anticipated outdoor hockey game ever played.
The novelty hadn’t worn off yet, the matchup featured the league’s two biggest stars in Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, and the buildup included the debut of HBO’s 24/7 documentary mini-series, which helped turn the game into something that felt like an epic confrontation straight out of Hollywood.
But then the actual game arrived, and things went off the rails.
Warm weather, wind and the threat of rain put the entire event in jeopardy. They eventually got the game started seven hours late, pushing it out of its scheduled afternoon slot. And despite all the star power, the game ended up being a low-scoring affair in which Eric Fehr played the hero.
Then, of course, there was the game’s only truly memorable moment: David Steckel’s blindside hit on Sidney Crosby.
The Penguins’ star was allowed to remain in the game, played four nights later, took another hard hit and missed the rest of the season (and beyond) with a concussion.
Based on the buildup, this one should have been an easy top-ten pick. But the enduring image from the game will always be the sport’s best player doubled over and facing an uncertain future.
#18: February 21, 2016 – Wild 6, Blackhawks 1 (TCF Bank Stadium)
Minnesota has always seemed like an obvious choice to host an outdoor game, and it was a surprise that it took the NHL so long to make it happen.
When it finally did, we ended up with the biggest blowout of any outdoor game ever. That was probably just fine with Wild fans, but for the rest of us there wasn’t much to get excited about.
#17: January 29, 2014 – Rangers 2, Islanders 1 (Yankee Stadium)
As soon as it became apparent that the NHL would make outdoor games a regular thing, there were certain venues that felt inevitable as eventual destinations. Yankee Stadium was one of them, and after years of anticipation, fans in New York finally got to see it happen in 2014.
Unfortunately, that historic game took place three days before this one, which made the whole thing feel redundant. The league’s decision to run two games at Yankee Stadium also meant that this one was played on a Wednesday, stripping away much of the big-event feel that outdoor games are supposed to carry.
As for the game itself, it was OK, but didn’t really get interesting until late in the second period after fans had sat through nearly 40 minutes of scoreless hockey.
Unless you were an Islanders fan, the whole thing just felt like a rerun.
#16: January 1, 2016 – Canadiens 5, Bruins 1 (Gillette Stadium)
On paper, this was a great matchup featuring the sport’s best current rivalry. But the game ended up being a dud, with the Habs dominating from the opening faceoff and earning a 5-1 win in the first Winter Classic to be decided by more than two goals.
The venue was fine but not especially inspired, and the Bruins had already hosted a Winter Classic just six years earlier. It all added up to a game that felt like a letdown (and garnered record-low ratings).
#15: March 1, 2014 – Chicago 5, Penguins 1 (Soldier Field)
Much like the Senators/Canucks and Rangers/Islanders, this one gets dragged down by the league’s prolific 2013-14 outdoor schedule.
The venue was a good one and the league loaded up on two marquee teams. It all paid off with strong ratings — among the best for a non-Winter Classic regular season game in recent history. But the game itself didn’t deliver, with the Blackhawks skating away with an easy 5-1 win.
#14: January 26, 2014 – Rangers 7, Devils 3 (Yankee Stadium)
Have we mentioned there were too many games in 2014? There were too many games in 2014.
Despite that, this one really did feel like a big deal at the time, since it was the first one held at Yankee Stadium. Unfortunately, the game itself wasn’t great, with the Rangers scoring four unanswered goals in the second period to turn it into a laugher.
Still, we’ll nudge it ahead of the Rangers/Islanders game based on the undeniably cool sight of Yankee Stadium hosting a game for the first time.
#13: September 27, 1991 – Kings 3, Rangers 2 (Caesars Palace)
Yes, there really was an outdoor game in Las Vegas.
In a casino parking lot, to be specific.
With a marquee matchup between the Kings and Rangers, the 1991 game was definitely unique. It featured 85-degree temperatures, a tarp that melted the ice, tents for dressing rooms, fabric strips for blue lines, and an infestation of locusts that kept leaping onto the ice and then freezing to it.
It wasn’t a great game (the Kings ended up winning 5-2). But it was certainly memorable.
And in some small way, it helped set the stage for the outdoor era that was to come.
#12: February 21, 2015 – Kings 2, Sharks 1 (Levi’s Stadium)
After proving they could do outdoor games in California the year before, the league returned for a sequel in 2015.
The matchup was a good one, and the venue was nice enough, even though we’d seen enough hockey played in NFL stadiums that they were all starting to feel the same by now.
The game itself was close, if not especially exciting. It all added up to an event that didn’t have much buzz but ended up being perfectly serviceable, which is why it ends up right around the middle of our list.
#11: February 20, 2011 – Flames 4, Canadiens 0 (McMahon Stadium)
After four straight years of Winter Classics featuring US-based teams, outdoor hockey returned to Canada with this matchup that doubled as a rematch of a pair of 1980s Stanley Cup Finals.
It sounds strange now, but back in 2011 there were complaints that the NHL was overdoing outdoor games by having two in one season.
The overall event was reasonably successful even if the game itself was one-sided, and it was important for the league to find a way to bring Canadian fans back into the outdoor game fold.
(Some of us are still having nightmares about that creepy Carey Price mask, though.)
#10: February 2, 1954 – Red Wings 18, Marquette Prison Pirates 0 (Marquette Branch Prison)
Gordie Howe and the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings faced off with a group of convicts in an outdoor prison yard.
That’s not an exhibition game, it’s a Johnny Cash song.
I don’t care if the game was so lopsided that they stopped keeping score after one period — this one has to rank in the top ten.
#9: January 1, 2015 – Capitals 3, Blackhawks 2 (Nationals Park)
There’s no question that a sense of outdoor fatigue had set in by this point, and the fact that the game featured two teams that had already made Winter Classic appearances contributed to the “been there, done that” feeling (and low television ratings).
But the game itself was one of the better ones we’ve seen, with the Capitals rallying from an early 2-0 deficit to win on a dramatic last-second goal by Troy Brouwer.
#8: February 27, 2016 – Red Wings 5, Avalanche 3 (Coors Field)
This may have been the only outdoor game where fans were more pumped for the alumni day than for the actual game.
The old-timers managed to make it through their game without any flying full body presses at center ice, which may or may not have been a good thing depending on your perspective.
The real game was fun too, featuring plenty of goals and a winner that was scored in the final minute, and the venue looked fantastic. It took the league too long to bring an outdoor game to Colorado, but the final product was worth the wait.
#7: January 2, 2012 – Rangers 3, Flyers 2 (Citizens Bank Park)
The fifth Winter Classic is best remembered for its dramatic finish.
Trailing 3-2 in the final minute, the Flyers were awarded a penalty shot after a goal mouth scramble. Henrik Lundqvist stopped Daniel Briere to let the Rangers escape with a win, and the moment served up one of those iconic images that the league loves to pull from these games.
#6: January 1, 2010 – Bruins 2, Flyers 1 (Fenway Park)
The game took a while to get going, and looked like it might end as a 1-0 snoozer. But the Bruins tied the game late, and Marco Sturm scored the first (and so far only) overtime goal in outdoor game history to send the fans home happy.
But while the game itself was decent, this one ranks in the top ten largely on the strength of the venue. Watching hockey played in the shadow of Fenway’s Green Monster was an indisputably cool experience.
#5: January 25, 2014 – Ducks 3, Kings 0 (Dodger Stadium)
As soon as outdoor games started appearing on NHL schedules, fans around the league were making some variation of the same joke: Hey, when are they going to have a game in California?
But the punch line came in 2014, when the league figured out a way to make it happen.
The whole concept seemed strange, and the league embraced that weirdness, surrounding the game with beach volleyball, yoga sessions and a Kiss concert.
And you know what? It totally worked. Dodger Stadium made for a stunning venue, the atmosphere was fantastic, and the whole California vibe managed to be fun while stopping just short of feeling tacky.
The game itself was just OK, but that hardly mattered. The hockey world went in with their doubts, and came away wondering when the next southern outdoor game could be held.
#4: January 1, 2009 – Red Wings 6, Blackhawks 4 (Wrigley Field)
Most outdoor games have been low-scoring affairs, which you’d probably expect given the challenges presented by weather and ice quality.
But the second Winter Classic was an exception — a high-scoring affair that featured 80 shots and ten goals, including five straight by the Red Wings in the second and third. The venue was great, giving us our first look at NHL hockey in a baseball stadium, and the success of the game locked in the Winter Classic as an annual highlight of the schedule.
#3: November 22, 2003 – Canadiens 4, Oilers 3 (Commonwealth Stadium)
With apologies to Las Vegas and the Marquette Prison Pirates, this was the outdoor game that started it all.
For the first time, the NHL went outdoors during the regular season, and seeing a game that actually mattered played in the elements was an irresistible hook for hockey fans.
It seems strange to think now, but at the time there were plenty of questions about whether the idea would work.
The ice was a major concern – this was where many fans first heard the name of the league’s ice-based miracle worker, Dan Craig – and nobody was quite sure how the whole thing would play out, especially when it became clear that the game would be played under frigid conditions.
But once fans got a look at players puffing out breath clouds (not to mention Jose Theodore’s toque), they were sold.
The game itself was pretty good, with the Habs winning a 4-3 decision, but it hardly mattered. The NHL had a major hit on its hands.
If anything, it’s surprising that it took the league another five years to make outdoor games a regular part of the schedule.
#2: January 1, 2014 – Maple Leafs 3, Red Wings 2 (Michigan Stadium)
If you made a list of everything you’d want to see in an outdoor game, this one had it all.
It featured a great rivalry with some real history to it. The venue was excellent, with University of Michigan’s “Big House” allowing for 105,000 fans to pile into the event.
Thanks to the previous season’s lockout wiping out the 2013 Winter Classic, the novelty factor of seeing outdoor hockey again after two years was high. The game marked the first time that a Canadian and American team faced off outdoors, and the location meant that plenty of fans from north of the border could make the trip down to take it all in.
In fact, the buildup was almost too good, as if something – lousy weather, a lopsided game, you name it – would have to come along and spoil it.
Instead, the two teams served up a good game that the Leafs won in a shootout. The ratings were huge between the two counties, by some accounts the best ever for a regular season NHL game.
As long as you weren’t stuck in the epic traffic logjams before or after the game, the event was just about perfect.
#1: January 1, 2008 – Penguins 2, Sabres 1 (Ralph Wilson Stadium)
It wasn’t the best matchup in outdoor game history, or even the best game. And the venue, while impressive, couldn’t compete with some of those that would come after it.
But there was something about the first-ever Winter Classic that just clicked, and the end result was a game that still serves as the archetype of what an outdoor game should be.
Everything just seemed to work, from the vintage throwback uniforms to the light snowfall that gave the whole thing an almost impossibly made-for-TV look. The game itself was low-scoring but entertaining, and it ended with a moment right out of the league’s marketing handbook: Sidney Crosby scoring the winning goal in a shootout.
The league went into the day wondering if outdoor games could become a regular event; by the end of it, they had no choice.
While it wasn’t the first outdoor game in league history, this was the one that locked the games in as an indelible part of the modern NHL experience. For better or worse, every outdoor game that followed – including Sunday’s contest in Winnipeg – owes its existence to a snowy afternoon in Buffalo.