My Winter Classic: An Unforgettable Experience

And you wonder why the NHL holds so many outdoor games each year.

I’ve been going to Dallas Stars games for the past 20 years, since I was about three years old. While I may not remember that far back, I have many fond memories of hockey games in Dallas during that time.

I remember my dad and I getting upgraded from the upper bowl to seats on the glass for the annual fan appreciation night. I remember getting to experience a game from an executive suite, complete with fancy food and free drinks. And I remember leaping to my feet last April when John Klingberg scored in overtime to knock the Nashville Predators out of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

But nothing — and I repeat nothing — holds a candle to the 2020 NHL Winter Classic.

For Christmas this year, I got tickets to the Winter Classic for my parents and older brother. When you spend a lot of money on something like this, you tend to worry about what might go wrong. For me, I worried about pretty much everything — I get that from my mom — but my biggest concern was the view. After all, they were seats from the upper bowl in a football stadium, and the rink would only cover a fraction of the field.

I guess I forgot how small the Cotton Bowl feels, because I felt like a fool for worrying. As soon as we walked out into the open, there was the rink, clear as day. It probably helped that we were in the fourth row of the upper bowl, but I can’t imagine it was a much worse view from anywhere higher.

That small, compact feeling made the crowd experience even greater. I’ve been to a fair number of football games — including the Red River Shootout in the Cotton Bowl — and they can get very loud and rowdy. But when you hear over 60,000 fans in Victory Green shout “Stars!” during the national anthem in unison, you can’t help but wonder if everyone just broke a world record for the loudest stadium.

Which is crazy, because it got even louder when Alexander Radulov scored the eventual game-winning goal. That itself came only a few minutes after a dominating offensive performance by the Stars to start the third period, one which elicited a deafening roar of approval from the crowd when play stopped. Maybe Nashville Predators head coach Peter Laviolette was planning on calling a timeout anyway, but I like to believe that his decision was partially influenced by the uproar.


Of course, games like this are always better when your team wins. Heading into Wednesday, the hosting team was surprisingly only 3-5-3 in the Winter Classic, and it sure looked like the Stars would join the losers for most of game. The Predators quickly went up 2-0 thanks in large part due to Corey Perry’s five-minute major penalty on Ryan Ellis — more on that later — and knowing the Stars’ offense, you can’t blame anyone for wondering if we were about to witness the first shutout in Winter Classic history.

That specific fear was alleviated when Blake Comeau opened the scoring for Dallas in the late second, thanks to a beautiful setup by Jason Dickinson behind the net. Then the fear of losing diminished when Mattias Janmark tied things up to start the third, and it all but vanished completely when Radulov scored the aforementioned game-winner. Add in Andrej Sekera’s first goal of the season and it felt like Dallas was assured a storybook ending.

Sadly with every happy ending in sports, there has to be a loser. That would be the Predators this year, who are no doubt frustrated that they blew a 2-0 lead and allowed four unanswered goals. But at the same time, you can’t help but think the Nashville players were still happy they got to play in such an incredible event in the first place, jokes about participation trophies aside.

Which is why it’s an absolute travesty that Ryan Ellis had to miss the game after suffering an upper-body injury just minutes in. I already felt bad for the players who were healthy scratches and had to watch the game from afar. It has to be much worse to begin playing in potentially a once-in-a-career game like this and have it robbed from you due to a highly illegal hit.

I emphasize “highly illegal” instead of “dirty” because I truly don’t believe Corey Perry intended to injure Ellis in any way. I think he just got a little too physical, which led to a bad hit. So I do feel somewhat bad that Perry also had to leave the game early. But then again, the old adage holds true — if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.

Of course, the Winter Classic is more than just a hockey game. It’s a high-scale entertainment event, and the NHL didn’t pull any punches as they fully leaned into the country western and state fair theme. Personally, I could have done with a little less country music and tweets about Pierre McGuire eating a corn dog, but everything fit into the atmosphere that the NHL worked to build.

By far the best sideshow for the game was the pig racing during commercial breaks. Maybe I’m just a sucker for groan-inducing puns, but I went into the day wondering why this was a thing and finished it disappointed there wasn’t more.

One major issue with the event, however, was how crowded the Midway was outside of the stadium. Typically when the Cotton Bowl is hosting a high-attendance event — namely the Red River Shootout — it’s during the Texas State Fair. So while there’s likely more than 100,000 people wandering about at any given time (not everyone who goes to the fair has tickets to the game), they’re all relatively spread out.

The entire Midway wasn’t open on Wednesday, which is to be expected. But with only a few designated entrances and many paths inside the grounds blocked off, it felt as if everyone was packed into a can of sardines. Originally, my family’s plan was to explore the grounds a bit before the game and then make our way into the stadium around noon or so. Yet after more than 15 minutes of trying to move through the crowds, we went essentially nowhere — one fan told us to not head too far away from the entrance, as it took him nearly an hour to make his way back.

That also created the logistical nightmare around trying to enter and then leave the stadium before and after the game, not to mention the heavy traffic on both the rail system and on the roads. Those are issues you’ll have regardless when dealing with an event like this. However, you can’t help but wonder if the NHL focused too much on the experience for the 85,630 fans inside the stadium and not the 85,630 outside of it.

Yelling at the clouds aside, there wasn’t much to complain about the game. Said clouds covered the sky, giving us a nice overcast which prevented any glares from the sun. Maybe it was a bit too warm for the players’ liking — the puck was bouncing and players were slipping as the ice slowly deteriorated over the course of the game — but as a fan, it was perfect weather for outdoor hockey.

In addition, any bad blood on the ice didn’t seem to carry over into the stands, at least not from where we sat. Throughout the day, I ran into a number of the 25,000 Nashville fans in attendance, and I can’t think of a single negative interaction. I cracked jokes with several of them, and the most antagonistic anyone ever got was booing the other fans’ chants.

Maybe it was a bit too warm for the players’ liking, but as a fan, it was perfect weather for outdoor hockey.

All together, it was quite an unforgettable experience. It was a great, exciting hockey game coupled with quality side-entertainment, and I doubt many people (if any) left the Midway thinking they didn’t get their money’s worth.

It’ll probably be a long time until Dallas hosts another outdoor game — they’re still a non-traditional market, after all — and if/when they do, it probably won’t be in the Cotton Bowl again. But at the end of the day, the Stars were able to show the world that hockey does work in Texas, and that the NHL doesn’t need the Chicago Blackhawks in an outdoor game to make it a success.

(Now about the Minnesota Wild’s undecided opponent for the 2021 Winter Classic...)