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Elise Amendola/AP

History of Outdoor Hockey Games

January 01, 2010 11:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
The Boston Bruins host the Philadelphia Flyers this afternoon at Fenway Park in the NHL’s third annual Winter Classic. Here’s a look at the history of outdoor games played at the college, professional and international level.

Fenway Park Hosts 2010 Winter Classic

Though many players grew up playing on outdoor ponds, outdoor high-level hockey games were a rare event in the 20th century. Perhaps the most famous was the 1957 final of the World Championships, played before 55,000 in Moscow’s Lenin Stadium.

The NHL held an exhibition game in 1991 at the Caesars Palace outdoor arena in Las Vegas, where the Rangers and Kings skated in 85-degree weather. “For all the hockey derring-do Friday night,” wrote The New York Times, “the exhibition game seemed more an engineering feat than an athletic achievement.”

The game attracted only minor coverage, and no other prominent outdoor games were held until 2001, when Michigan State University decided to hold a game against archrival Michigan in its football stadium. The game attracted 74,554 fans and demonstrated the widespread appeal and marketing possibilities of outdoor games.

“This could be a breakthrough game for the sport of hockey,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “But it’s also a throwback game for the older people in the crowd. And it’s good for the young guys to experience playing outdoors. This was the best of everything. The crowd. The rink. The competition. The importance of the game. It had all the ingredients of a great game and it was.”

The Cold War inspired the Edmonton Oilers to play outdoors two years later against the Montreal Canadiens. The “Heritage Classic,” which also included a pregame exhibition between retired Oilers and Canadiens, was played in sub-zero temperatures before 57,000 fans. The game, most remembered for the sight of Montreal goaltender Jose Theodore wearing a knit cap over his helmet, proved that the NHL could effectively hold outdoor games.
A second NCAA game was played outdoors at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field in 2006. The NHL held a second outdoor game on New Year’s Day 2008, which it dubbed the “Winter Classic.”

Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium, home to the NFL’s Bills, hosted the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins, who played through a snowstorm before 71,000 fans. The game, decided on a shootout goal by Sidney Crosby, drew the largest television rating in decades for an NHL regular season game, inspiring the league to make the Winter Classic an annual event.

Last year’s game was held at Wrigley Field, the famed home of the Chicago Cubs since 1916. Television ratings for the game, a 6-4 win by the Detroit Red Wings over the hometown Blackhawks, increased 12 percent over the previous year.

There have also been outdoor games staged in Europe. Swiss club Bern hosted an outdoor game in 2007, and Swedish team Frolunda Gothenburg set a European professional league record by attracting 31,144 fans to a game this past week.

The world record, held by Michigan State, could be broken this spring, when the opening game of the 2010 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships is held at a retractable-roof soccer stadium in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, which has a planned capacity of 75,976.

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