As the National Hockey League regular season draws to a close and we enter into the madness that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs, I took a lot of time to reflect on this season and what made it so unique.

I’ve previously written about how this season has showcased a class of legendary NHL veterans and how the LA Kings have posted possibly the strangest season I’ve ever seen. One of the more unusual aspects of this season were the six games that were played without a roof over the players’ heads.

Each year the NHL awards two cities an outdoor game — the Winter Classic and the Heritage Classic. Both games are played in an outdoor setting and are the highest-viewed games during the regular season.

The history of outdoor games in the NHL is relatively young, with the exception of a game played in 1954 between the Detroit Red Wings and the Marquette Branch Prison. They actually played a game against prisoners.

Graham Hughes / AP Photo: Montreal Canadiens’ Max Pacioretty takes a shot on Tampa Bay Lightning’s goalie Anders Lindback on Sunday, April 20.

Graham Hughes / AP Photo:
Montreal Canadiens’ Max Pacioretty takes a shot on Tampa Bay Lightning’s goalie Anders Lindback on Sunday, April 20.

But the next outdoor game wasn’t played again until 1991, when the New York Rangers took on the Los Angeles Kings in, of all places, Las Vegas. They played the game in 85-degree weather at Caesars Palace and spent most of the second period battling crickets and flies that were littering the ice.

Since then, the games were sparse, until the first official NHL Winter Classic game was played at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo between the Penguins and Sabres. Since then Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Detroit have hosted Winter Classic matchups, and Calgary and Vancouver have hosted the Heritage Classic.

The Winter Classic games are always the fan-favorite, the highest attended and highest viewed games during the regular season. This past Winter Classic game, held at Michigan Stadium, set the all-time record for highest attended hockey game of all time, with 105,491 in attendance, according to Over 100,000 fans sat in subzero temperatures to watch one of the most exciting games of the season. But what about those other four outdoor games? A curious bit of news came out over this summer when I saw the NHL is planning not one, but six outdoor games this year. I knew the Winter Classic and Heritage Classic were planned, but the other four were a mystery to me.

The league decided to take more games to the great outdoors in the Coors Light NHL Stadium Series. I found the name to be a little too sappy, but the more outdoor games, the better. Two were planned for Yankee Stadium, one at Soldier Field in Chicago and the other (and most intriguing) held at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.

Four games at some really iconic venues to supplement the two Classic games seemed like a really cool idea, and I was fortunate enough to attend one of the Yankee Stadium games, a freezing match-up between the New York Rangers and New York Islanders. Then came the inevitable debate.

Is this ruining the tradition of outdoor games? Is this too much? Have we ruined a good thing? Honestly, that debate is maddening. What everyone overlooks is what goes behind each game. Of course, tons of planning comes from the league for both the Classics and the Stadium Series. The difference here is the spirit behind each one.

The Winter and Heritage Classics are supposed to reflect team tradition. The teams that play in the Classic games always pick uniform designs that reflect the history of their teams. The Vancouver Canucks played in this year’s Heritage Classic and wore uniforms that reflected their style when they played in 1911 as the Vancouver Millionaires. When the Washington Capitals played in the 2011 Winter Classic, their uniform designs reflected their look in mid 1970s. You get the picture, the Classic games are all about the throwbacks.

What makes the Stadium Series so uniquely different is that those games take a peek into the future. Rather than go with old-school design, Stadium Series teams took a modern approach and styled their uniforms and logos to take a futuristic look. Chrome logos and sleek designs made for really interesting uniform sets and the games looked awesome.

So is the abundance of outdoor games ruining the tradition of roofless hockey? Absolutely not. We have to accept the fact that the NHL is struggling in popularity compared to the MLB and the NFL, and these games are great for the league. They bring in tons of revenue for the league, get NBC national coverage for games and sell out crowds that can be anywhere from 20,000 to 80,000 larger than an NHL arena.

These games are great for the league, and I say bring on more.


Ray Waldron can be contacted at        

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