Ranking the NHL Winter Classics based on venue, hype and style

Sports

The Winter Classic has been the NHL’s signature outdoor event since 2008, when the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres played through picturesque snow and launched an institution.

The game between the St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild scheduled for Target Field on Jan. 1, 2022, will be the 13th edition of the Winter Classic. The event has grown and changed through the years — a wider variety of teams, grander aesthetics, an occasional appearance by Weezer — and each Winter Classic has had its singular virtues.

Here’s a subjective ranking of the Classics and their relative greatness. We’ve assigned a score of 1 to 10 in four categories for each outdoor game. There’s Environment, which covers the novelty of the venue and the elements that challenged teams during the game; there’s Hype, which covers the buzz leading up to the Winter Classic, as well as the allure of the teams involved; there’s the Game itself, and whether it was competitive, boring or rendered unwatchable by the conditions; and finally Style, as we consider how good the teams looked in their Winter Classic gear.

Here is our ranking of the 12 Winter Classic events:

Environment: 4
Hype: 7
Game: 2
Style: 8

After pulling Chicago and Washington out of a hat for the 2015 edition, the NHL course-corrected back to an Original Six rivalry. The fans ate it up: 67,000 tickets were sold for the Winter Classic, and there were 42,000 in the house for the alumni game held the same weekend in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

The teams looked tremendous: Boston rocked a black-and-gold version of its 1924 inaugural season sweaters, while the Habs wore striking white jerseys inspired by that year as well — including a globe on the sleeves, which was actually the primary logo on those 1924-25 jerseys.

But the game … well, at least the Bruins got a participation ribbon. With backup goalie and Massachusetts native Mike Condon in net, the Canadiens built a 3-0 lead by the 17:20 mark of the second period and controlled the game in a way that would have made Bill Belichick squint in approval.

At an unremarkable venue with unremarkable weather, and with a Canadian market in an unremarkable game, this was the lowest-rated Winter Classic to date in the U.S. The weekend would also be remembered for heartbreaking reasons: Denna Laing, playing for the Boston Pride in the first Outdoor Women’s Classic, suffered a significant spinal cord injury in a collision with the boards on the eve of the Winter Classic and was stretchered off the ice. To this day, she continues to rehabilitate from that injury.

11. 2017: Busch Stadium, St. Louis Blues 4, Chicago Blackhawks 1 (23 points)

Environment: 6
Hype: 5
Game: 5
Style: 7

The Blackhawks had reached the perfunctory stage of their overexposure as an outdoor game foil. In this event, they were like a team of jobbers hired to make the crowd favorites look good, getting dominated for the last 40 minutes of the game.

This was all about St. Louis. It gave us an alumni game that featured Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull and Martin Brodeur on the same team. It gave us perhaps the best Blues jerseys ever created — counterbalanced by another pedestrian Chicago sweater. And it officially started the Nelly renaissance years before he landed on “Dancing With The Stars.”

But the NHL hurt the game’s buzz with its scheduling, putting the Maple Leafs and Red Wings in an outdoor game in Toronto on Jan. 1 — and a good one at that — before playing this game on Jan. 2. The league wanted the Classic on a Monday to avoid Week 17 of the NFL schedule; it ended up pushing a game that was already struggling for hype into obscurity.

10. 2015: Nationals Park, Washington Capitals 3, Chicago Blackhawks 2 (24 points)

Environment: 5
Hype: 3
Game: 9
Style: 7

After years of pitting geographic and traditional rivals against each other, the NHL made the truly bizarre choice to pit teams from opposite conferences with no discernible association in its marquee event.

The result was a game seen by few people outside the D.C. area — the 3.47 million viewers in the U.S. were, at the time, the event’s smallest audience — which is a shame because it was one of the most exciting Winter Classics in history.

The Capitals took a 2-0 lead, and the Blackhawks rallied to tie before the third period. Troy Brouwer, who won a Stanley Cup with Chicago, scored the winning power-play goal with 13 seconds left in regulation to send a partisan crowd of nearly 43,000 fans into a frenzy.

The “40 degrees and sunny” weather didn’t make for the best conditions for a hockey game, but the Nationals’ ballpark made for a gorgeous backdrop — including a replica of the Capitol and the reflecting pool near the rink.

The Blackhawks weren’t even trying to create anything interesting fashion-wise for yet another outdoor game appearance, basically wearing their normal road white sweaters. But the Capitals’ deep red jerseys — with a crest that evoked both the D.C. flag and the Washington Monument — were dope.

Plus, this was perhaps the only event in human history to have both Billy Idol and Lee Greenwood perform.

9. 2018: Citi Field, New York Rangers 3, Buffalo Sabres 2 (26 points)

Environment: 5
Hype: 6
Game: 9
Style: 6

We have to admit to some recency bias in overpraising this game in Jan. 2018. The 10th anniversary edition of the Winter Classic was held at a venue that had capacity but not personality, even though the weather came through with freezing temperatures at game time. The most memorable things about Citi Field were the giant shadows it cast on the ice for the first period.

Also, the Rangers’ jerseys get a downgrade from our previous evaluation. Yes, they evoked the color scheme of the “Liberty Head” jerseys that were among the best in the NHL in the past 30 years. But as The Tennessean wrote in its Winter Classic jersey countdown, putting the Rangers second to last: “the 1926-inspired font looks more like something that’d be slapped on a roller hockey jersey.”

The Sabres wore classic white jerseys for the game, which brings us to another oddity about this event: Buffalo, located close to 375 miles from New York City, was the home team at this game. Much like the New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders were home teams at Yankee Stadium, the Sabres “hosted” the Rangers because the Blueshirts aren’t allowed to play a home game outside of Madison Square Garden due to tax exemption reasons.

All that said, the game was great: The Rangers took a 2-0 lead in the first period, and the Sabres rallied with goals in the second and third. For the first time since 2014, the game went to overtime, where J.T. Miller ended it for the Rangers.

After a couple of duds, a cool return to form for the Classic on a frigid New York day.

8. 2011: Heinz Field, Washington Capitals 3, Pittsburgh Penguins 1 (27 points)

Environment: 4
Hype: 10
Game: 4
Style: 9

The hype for this game was off the charts: two blood-rival teams, and the NHL’s two biggest stars in Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin. Plus, the Penguins and Capitals were featured on the first season of HBO’s “24/7” series dedicated to the Winter Classic, which remains the season by which all other NHL reality shows are judged. (We’ll always remember you, sauce-faced, profanity-laced Bruce Boudreau.)

Alas, the hype was not met, either in quality of play or in venue aesthetics.

The 2011 Winter Classic will be remembered for two reasons. First, for having an 8 p.m. start time thanks to concerns about rain. At first, “under the lights” seemed cool, until one realized it killed much of the charm of the event. But hey, at least the teams looked good: Capitals throwbacks vs. Penguins dark blue alternates, featuring a penguin with a scarf on the logo.

Second, and more than somewhat related: It will be remembered for the injury Crosby suffered in a collision with Dave Steckel of the Capitals, which contributed to his missing most of 2011 with concussion-like symptoms.

When it came to this Winter Classic, getting there was all the fun.

7. 2019: Notre Dame Stadium, Boston Bruins 4, Chicago Blackhawks 2 (29 points)

Environment: 7
Hype: 7
Game: 8
Style: 7

The NHL returned to a college venue for the first time since 2014.

The upside was bringing hockey to an iconic venue, getting the chance to use Fighting Irish iconography around the rink and on briskly selling gear. The downside of using Notre Dame was that it meant the sixth outdoor game appearance for the Blackhawks, who hold their training camps at the campus. (The Bruins were an obvious opponent, as anything in America even tangentially Irish must include either Notre Dame or the city of Boston.)

The venue looked great, but the game didn’t have the luck of the Irish, from running out of food and beer to the school’s leprechaun biting it at center ice.

Boston’s jerseys were a combination of different throwback looks and continued the Bruins’ trend of fine-looking sweaters. Alas, the Blackhawks chose to wear a jersey that looked like a photo negative and had more stripes than a referee training camp.

All that said, the game itself was one of the better ones, as the teams traded goals for two periods before Sean Kuraly scored at 10:20 of the third period to put Boston ahead for good. Tuukka Rask made 36 saves.

Also of note: Weezer performed its cover of “Africa” by Toto between periods. We’re still not sure how to factor that into the overall scoring. Perhaps it defies classification.

6. 2010: Fenway Park, Boston Bruins 2, Philadelphia Flyers 1 (30 points)

Environment: 8
Hype: 8
Game: 7
Style: 7

This game was notable for its firsts. Like the first overtime-winning goal in Classic history, scored by the Bruins’ Marco Sturm at 1:57, which followed Mark Recchi‘s tying goal late in the third period. For the first time in three Winter Classics, the home team won, and in dramatic fashion. Danny Syvret scored his first NHL goal in his first outdoor game. And, of course, the first fight in Winter Classic history occurred, between Shawn Thornton and Dan Carcillo, though one could not have expected anything else from the Flyers and Bruins.

Fenway was a great venue … in theory. There were awkward sightlines and seats that made it feel like you were watching the game from Plymouth.

Adding to the hype was that the 2010 U.S. Olympic roster was announced during the event. Detracting from the hype was that the NHL had just done a game in a historic baseball stadium — and a more entertaining game at that.

Environment: 9
Hype: 6
Game: 9
Style: 8

Forever remembered as the event that married NHL hockey with pig races.

The aesthetics at this game were among the best for any NHL outdoor event. The area around the rink had everything from giant cowboy boots to a square-dancing floor to a mechanical bull to the aforementioned sprinting swine, with hockey-centric names like Andrew “Hog-liano” and “Pork-a” Rinne. Outside was a Texas state fair-type midway complete with food and rides.

The game looked great, especially with the Stars’ victory green jerseys with “leather gloves.” The game sounded great, with 85,630 fans in attendance — second-most ever for a Winter Classic — and Dan + Shay playing during intermission.

The game actually was great, with the Stars rallying from a 2-1 deficit with four straight goals, three of them in the third period. Plus, drama: Stars forward Corey Perry received a five-minute major and a game misconduct for elbowing Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis in the head at 2:44 into the first period. Perry would earn a five-game suspension, which paled in comparison to the embarrassment he felt taking the world’s longest walk of shame.

Alas, there wasn’t much hype for these two divisional opponents. Fans had been conditioned to expect Original Six teams and glamour franchises in this event. Despite the venue and a terrific game, the Cotton Bowl classic was the lowest-rated Winter Classic ever and the first to draw under 2 million viewers.

4. 2012: Citizens Bank Park, New York Rangers 3, Philadelphia Flyers 2 (33 points)

Environment: 7
Hype: 9
Game: 9
Style: 8

Citizens Bank Park was less than a decade old when it hosted the Winter Classic. The weather was even less iconic: 45 degrees, with the game delayed due to sun glare before it was played through spotty drizzle. The Flyers had just appeared in the Classic two years earlier, so there wasn’t much novelty there, either.

Despite all that, few Classics can match the fun factor of this one, both in the lead-up to the event and the game itself.

The hype started with HBO’s “24/7,” which introduced us to the cosmic meanderings of Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov and the snarly puppy dog that was Rangers coach John Tortorella. Then there was the alumni game that saw Eric Lindros make an emotional return to the Flyers organization. And there was controversy: In a surprise move, Bryzgalov sat for the Classic in favor of 23-year-old Sergei Bobrovsky.

The game itself was one of the best-played Classics from the second period on, right down to the Daniel Briere penalty shot that was stopped by Henrik Lundqvist with 19.6 seconds remaining to preserve the Rangers’ win — a penalty Tortorella claimed was part of an NBC conspiracy to extend the game into overtime, an accusation that earned him a hefty fine from the NHL.

Two compelling, rival teams filled with big personalities. It lacked the legendary status of the top three but certainly made up for it with the fun factor.

3. 2009: Wrigley Field, Detroit Red Wings 6, Chicago Blackhawks 4 (34 points)

Environment: 9
Hype: 9
Game: 6
Style: 10

The first Winter Classic to stick a hockey rink inside a mythic sports venue. The second Winter Classic introduced some enduring concepts, like the NHL holding an outdoor fan fest, adding its own aesthetics — in this case, fake ivy on the outfield walls — and most of all, having the Blackhawks involved in an outdoor game.

It also saw the NHL adopt local traditions into its Winter Classic motif: Witness Cubs legend Ryne Sandberg joining Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Denis Savard to sing a variation on “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” with a few word changes to reference hockey.

Nearly 41,000 fans crowded Wrigley, and even more watched from rooftops across the street, as the Blackhawks and Red Wings put on an offensive show. The Blackhawks built a 3-1 lead by the end of the first period, and the Red Wings roared back with five straight goals to build a 6-3 lead at 3:24 of the third.

These teams looked incredible, too. The Red Wings’ “big D” jerseys are some of the best in Classic history, while the Blackhawks’ horizontal stripe sweaters were the most memorable they have worn in an outdoor game.

Alas, the temperature wasn’t much colder than it is for a Cubs game in April. Despite NBC broadcaster Pierre McGuire’s comments about “wind-assisted goals,” it wasn’t all that much of a factor at the Wrigley game.

Overall, the game itself was the most underwhelming part of the Winter Classic, which is a shame: The Red Wings were the defending Stanley Cup champions, their archrivals from Chicago were quickly ascending to challenge their throne. You almost felt cheated not seeing these two battle it out in a vacuum in an arena instead of inside of a baseball stadium.

2. 2008: Ralph Wilson Stadium, Pittsburgh Penguins 2, Buffalo Sabres 1 (36 points)

Environment: 10
Hype: 10
Game: 6
Style: 8

The greatest praise that can be given to the first Winter Classic is that our vivid, happy memories of the snow globe in Buffalo have plastered over all those lengthy Zamboni appearances and ice-repair delays.

Oh, but those memories. Those 71,217 frozen puckheads, some of them shirtless, watching baby blue Penguins jerseys peek out through the steadily falling snow. Seeing players battle those elements, skating through clouds of their own breath in the frigid air. In the end, seeing Sidney Crosby win the game in the shootout with the flurries falling, as if Gary Bettman himself had scripted it.

The hype for the game was off the charts. It was an instant signature television event, even if a good portion of the massive viewing audience — the game garnered the highest ratings for a regular-season NHL game since 1996 — was just tuning in to see if the NHL could build a rink in a football stadium in seven days and actually pull this event off.

It’s the “Iron Man” of NHL stadium events: If it was unwatchable and failed to connect with the fans, then the NHL Outdoor Game Universe might have never launched. But while this was the first Classic, it wasn’t the best.

1. 2014: Michigan Stadium, Toronto Maple Leafs 3, Detroit Red Wings 2 (37 points)

Environment: 10
Hype: 10
Game: 8
Style: 9

This was a special kind of cold. The seat cushions handed to the 105,491 hockey fans at the Big House — an NHL record — could barely protect their posteriors from the numbing metal benches. The balls inside the linesmen’s whistles froze in place during the game. Snow fell, winds whipped. It was truly hockey vs. the elements that day in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

All of it helped create a legendary environment for the outdoor game. So did the split loyalties in the crowd, which was dotted with blue Maple Leafs jerseys and contrasting with Red Wings jerseys. On the ice, the teams’ throwback jerseys — both wore full-color uniforms — were among the best looking in the event’s history.

Impossible as it might seem, the game was actually good! Jonathan Bernier saw 43 Red Wings shots sail his way, and Detroit needed a late third-period goal to force overtime. Toronto won in a shootout on a Tyler Bozak tally, sending tens of thousands back over the border happy.

An entertaining game, in many ways, is the cherry on top for a Winter Classic. There are other aspects more central to the event’s success. Like having a compelling matchup, challenging winter conditions and a memorable venue with a personality of its own. But a great Winter Classic should also be a celebration of hockey: To that end, the Leafs and Wings played an alumni game doubleheader at Comerica Park in Detroit because they had so many darn great players who wanted in, and so many fans who wanted to watch them.

The Winter Classic at the Big House satisfied all these obligations. Which is why it’s the classic among Classics.

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