The first official outdoor NHL game, dubbed the Heritage Classic, was held in 2003 in Edmonton. It seemed as if this would be a one-off, nostalgic event, where hockey fans watching and attending this game could reminisce about their childhood games played in -30 degrees C in a small Canadian town. Even the name—The Heritage Classic—was intended to bring the players and fans closer to hockey’s roots. Even if it was just for one day, players and fans could recall childhood memories of skating on a frozen pond or playing pickup hockey at their town’s small outdoor rink.
The original Heritage Classic was wildly successful, not only from a hockey standpoint, but from a business one. Instead of selling the usual 17,000 tickets, Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium was packed with over 57,000 fans, more than tripling the revenue earned from tickets, concessions and merchandise sales. Not only was The Heritage Classic a wonderful spectacle, but it was also a cash cow.
And that was just the start. Everyone that followed hockey knew that it wouldn’t be long before the NHL returned outdoors. The league office saw the opportunity for growth and wanted to build off of the success of the Heritage Classic. Finally, in 2008 the NHL staged the first of what would become an annual tradition—The Winter Classic on New Years Day. However, this iteration wasn’t simply an outdoor game, but a weekend-long event in which the game was the final show. The Sabres and Penguins wore special edition jerseys for the game, with throwback-style logos and colours. There was also a game organized for Sabres and Penguins alumni, seeking more tickets and allowing an older generation of fans to watch their childhood idols play once more. The Winter Classic was executed to perfection. The vintage jerseys and the alumni game brought the nostalgia to even higher levels, all while bringing in more ticket sales, concessions, and merchandise. Since then, the NHL Winter Classic, played outdoors in a baseball or football stadium, has become a staple of New Years Day festivities for many hockey fans.
After the inaugural event, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in an interview that he wanted to ensure that the outdoor games remain special and that the league wouldn’t organize too many.
“The NHL continued to expand its lineup of outdoor games holding multiple Heritage Classics in addition to the annual Winter Classic, as well as introducing the Stadium Series slate of games, which has now become an annual spectacle as well, held later in the season.”
The wildly successful Winter Classic on New Years Day became an annual tradition. Special jerseys and merchandise, alumni games, and even outdoor practices leading up to the game have become staples of the event over the years. In 2010, the NHL and HBO introduced a documentary series entitled 24/7: Road to the NHL Winter Classic, which gave viewers exclusive behind the scenes access to practices, team meetings, and storylines to follow in the weeks leading up to the game. Although this series has changed names and partners multiple times, behind the scenes access has become a vital part of the Winter Classic.
The NHL continued to expand its lineup of outdoor games holding multiple Heritage Classics in addition to the annual Winter Classic, as well as introducing the Stadium Series slate of games, which has now become an annual spectacle as well, held later in the season. Furthermore, as part of the NHL’s 100th anniversary celebrations, two one-off outdoor games were planned—the Centennial Classic, held on New Years Day of the NHL’s 100th year, and the NHL 100 Classic, held on the weekend of the anniversary of the NHL’s first ever game.
As Commissioner Bettman predicted, the addition of so many outdoor games has caused the once-per-year Winter Classic event to lose some of its unique flavour. It is a shame to see fan interest waning for what was originally a brilliantly innovative and profitable idea. I hope the league soon recognizes that for this type of event, more isn’t necessarily better. Returning to the annually held Winter Classic on New Years Day would be the perfect way to maintain the event’s special quality while still taking advantage of the mass amounts of revenue that outdoor games generate for the league.